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Canoe artisan to present at Smithsonian
Published - Oct 16th, 2009 - Arthur Enterprise

By Lori Blair

Local birch bark canoe artisan Marcel Labelle has been invited to The Smithsonian this winter. He will present his talk "American Indian Stories of Trade" at the Diker Pavillion at the Smithsonian New York National Museum on Feb. 25, 26 and 27. Labelle, who recently returned from harvesting a moose up north, will demonstrate how birch bark canoes are made and will discuss how the canoes were used to further Hudson River trade. He became involved with the Smithsonian after he was contacted by a representative in the spring. "She was so excited to be talking to a canoe builder," Labelle said.

All canoes are a spin-off of the birch bark canoe. When Europeans arrived they found it difficult to work with birch bark. They made canvas and wood strip canoes in the shape of the birch bark canoes instead. It wasn’t until Labelle saw the reactions of others to his Smithsonian invitation that he became aware of the prestigious nature of the occasion. Even so, it took six months of convincing to get Labelle to agree to the journey because he’s anxious about navigating unfamiliar roadways with a canoe on the roof of his truck. Other than checking out the museum, Labelle doesn’t have any sightseeing plans during his visit to New York. “If I get to the museum safely, I’m going to stay right there,” he said with a laugh.

Labelle has a warm and friendly nature and enjoys speaking engagements. "Talking to school kids is comforting," said Labelle. When asked to elaborate, Labelle explained that when he was younger he felt he didn’t fit in with English or French Canadians or with Indigenous Canadians on reservations. "When I was in school it wasn’t popular to be Métis," Labelle said "Now the kids say they love aboriginals." Marcel described the general tone of his presentation. "We split wood, we listen to it talk, we talk about conservation and share stories," Labelle said. "I say, this is who I am. Now you know me."

Always busy, Labelle is scheduled to build a full-size canoe with Fort Erie Secondary School, a project funded by the Ontario Arts Council. After completion, the canoe will be donated to Niagara Region Métis Council. Labelle would like to see families build a canoe as a group project. He believes that folks involved in creating their own canoe will find the process much more satisfying than buying a boat. Toward that end he is considering offering a backyard canoe-building course next year. Labelle, the highest sole recipient of Ontario Arts Commission Grant in Ontario, has North American engagements booked into 2011.

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