A vision quest is a rite of passage among some North American native cultures. The quest is considered a turning point, usually taken by adolescents in search ~of spiritual and life direction. It was such a quest, taken much later in life, following a very bleak period, that led Marcel Labelle on the path to becoming one of North America’s foremost authorities on birch bark canoe building and a sought-after speaker and teacher on aboriginal culture.
The affable Arthur resident is a Métis. Born in the 1950s in Mattawa Ontario a small logging and fur industry-based community north of Algonquin Park his mother was French and Iroquois, and his father French and Algonquin. Raised in the woods and descended from a family of trappers, he grew naturally into that lifestyle. He also excelled at it, eventually becoming a certified trapping instructor for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and gave courses throughout the province.
But when the fur trade dried up in the early 1990s, Labelle lost not only his livelihood, but his way of life.
“I almost died,” he states, explaining that he underwent psychiatric treatment before deciding to return to school to study geography and environmental subjects. After graduating from Nipissing University in 1997, Labelle says, “I forgot about the past. I forgot about my culture and got a real job.”
However, Labelle found office life too confining and again became depressed. Fortunately, by this point, a flower shop started by his wife Joanne in Arthur had become firmly established and the couple’s children were grown. Labelle walked away from “a good paying job” and went on his vision quest, a two-month journey across Canada, during which found his vision, buried in youthful memories of watching the building of birch bark canoes.
Labelle makes his canoes the traditional way. He begins by combing the forest near his hometown for materials. Finding the birch bark itself is most difficult, as only one in 10 trees he inspects will provide the right amount and quality. The bark is peeled carefully from the tree, using only a knife and his hands to avoid damage. The ribs are made of cedar, handcrafted and soaked in rain water for hours until they are “soft enough to bend with your knees.” The stems and bark joints are sealed with gummy spruce resin and fasteners are made of spruce roots and wooden pegs. Although they look delicate, the birch bark vessels are amazingly strong and resilient, once Labelle has finished the task. Labelle’s craftsmanship has earned him the status of a master canoe builder. In 2009 he worked with students at Fort Erie Secondary School to construct a canoe as an educational experience. Locally, he has done presentations for schools in the Avon Maitland and Huron-Perth Catholic school boards and his work is also included in a new text book for secondary school students in a chapter on native studies.
In February 2010 Labelle displayed his canoes and spoke at the Smithsonian National Museum in New York. For three days he held court in a massive exhibit room at the famed museum, speaking with visitors he found hungry for knowledge of native culture.
This fall he has been engaged to teach canoe building at Trent University, where 32 students have signed up for the full credit course. He is also working on a 25-foot canoe for the Oshawa and District Métis Council, under funding from a grant through the Department of Canadian Heritage.
As for the future, Labelle plans to organize an expedition following the ancient trade route between North American and South American natives. When will it happen? Soon, he thinks, but there’s no hurry.
“When the spirit world says ‘go’, we go.”
Building canoes in the traditional fashion is a time-consuming process, generally taking about three months for a single vessel. It’s also expensive, as he gets from $1,000 to $1,200 per foot to build one. But just because you have cash doesn’t mean you’ll get a canoe. Most of the canoes he builds these days are for groups who want them for cultural and educational purposes.
“I’m in a position where, if you ask me, I’ll say,’ Why should I build you a canoe?’”
As a Métis, with roots in both the aboriginal and western worlds, Labelle sees his role as a teacher, with the chance to help heal some of the rifts that opened since these civilizations first engaged.
“Let’s take the best from both our cultures and learn from it,” he offers.
More information on Marcel Labelle and birch bark canoe building can be found at www.birchbarkcanoes.ca.