Original story by: Jonathan Migneault; adapted from a story in Subury Northern Life: http://www.northernlife.ca/news/localNews/2014/12/14-laurentian-canoes-Sudbury.aspx

Laurentian Architecture canoe
From front, Laurentian University School of
Architecture second-year students Sophie Amacky,
Maxine Blais, Alex Gunnewiek, Ali Modl and
Denis Lemieux worked nine hours per week for a
month to complete the birch bark canoe they are
holding over their heads. (Source: Jonathan

Marcel Labelle, Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO) citizen and Métis elder from Mattawa, is a master canoe builder and was approached by the Laurentian School of Architecture for help with a special project.

This past school semester, around 30 Architecture students from Laurentian University were given the task of designing and building a canoe over the course of a month and Labelle was chosen as their instructor.

Labelle is a proud Métis who grew up in northern Ontario and spent most of his childhood on the trap line, which is where he learned how to live with, and from, the forest. Today he continues Métis traditions by building birch bark canoes and by demonstrating and teaching this craft at many venues, including Trent University where he instructs an Indigenous Studies course. He often works with the MNO and is a popular part of many Moccasin Camps, including the camps that took place in North Bay and Kitchener in 2012. He is also the recipient of a 2008 Ontario Arts Council Aboriginal Arts Projects grant.

When Maxine Blais found out that her and her classmates would be building a birch bark canoe during their second year of architecture school, she was a little skeptical.

“I was a little apprehensive because I was wondering about the connection between this and architecture,” said Blais. But that hesitation vanished once she learned about the materials and techniques they would be using.

They worked with cedar for the canoe’s skeleton, spruce roots to tie pieces together, and, of course, birch bark to create the outer shell.

Labelle taught the students how to bend the wood to their will, and better understand the material they will go on to use in buildings when they become architects. Blais explained how they “learned how the material has its own mind.”

While Blais and her peers worked on a birch bark canoe, around 30 other second-year students tackled its more modern cousin, made of space-age carbon fiber. Gergely Lanci, the commodore at the Sudbury Canoe Club, taught the second group how to build the carbon fiber canoe.

“If these students understand the construction method of a canoe – why we are doing things a certain way – they are very easily able to apply it on a larger scale, or use it as a component on a building,” Lanci said.

Laurentian School of Architecture Director Terrance Galvin said the canoes, and ice huts his students built last winter, were deliberate curriculum choices to represent northern culture.

“Tackling small projects like the ice hut or the canoe … what’s nice for the students is they’re not doing something abstractly,” Galvin said. “They get to build it, and now they’re standing around with their families and there’s a sense of completion in a fairly short time.” The students dedicated nine hours each week to the project.

Both canoes were on display at the University on December 13, 2014. Students’ family members, and local dignitaries, including Sudbury Mayor Brian Bigger, were on hand to see the finished products.

Galvin said the school plans to donate the birch bark canoe to the Wahnapitae First Nation.