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Local students learn about sustainability, Indigenous culture by building birch bark canoe

'I’ve learned a lot. I like that I’m being taught things that I typically wouldn’t learn in school,' says Grade 9 Patrick Fogarty student

Local Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School (PF) students are building a birch bark canoe with Indigenous master canoe builder and knowledge keeper, Chuck Commanda. It's an exercise that goes far beyond the watercraft.

Guidance councillor, Brad MacNeil, says the canoe is being built with techniques and methods that date back to 4,000 years ago. The build is an initiative set up by the Simcoe Catholic School Board which has been seeking opportunities to promote skilled trades in schools.  

“There is an obvious cultural and historical element to the project,” MacNeil said. “It’s also hands-on with woodworking, giving it a skills and trades component.”

Commanda has been at PF for just over a week and the canoe’s progress is astonishing; it is set for launch on Friday. The canoe is built from all raw materials that Commanda has harvested from the forest and different wood materials.

“It’s an entire school project,” MacNeil explained. “We try and let Chuck connect with students and also allow students the opportunity to determine if they want to be involved.”

Commanda, who is from Kitigan Zibi, a First Nations reserve in Quebec, says he enjoys interacting with students and building close bonds. He says the most significant thing students will take away from the project is learning how to harvest sustainably.

“We only take what we need and never overtake,” he said. “We always keep in mind the next generations to come. In our culture, it’s the next seven generations you have to keep in mind for.”

The lessons learned by students through the canoe build are more important than ever, Commanda says.

“Mother Earth is under a tremendous amount of pressure,” he said. “The changing of climate, global warming, and a lot of environmental pollution.”

A birch bark canoe is a perfect tool to teach students about sustainability, Commanda says.

“I find these teachings are very important to the younger generation,” he said. “As they grow up, they will remember the message.”

Commanda says he hopes students will take the lessons they learned and apply them to their daily lives and pass them along to others.  

“We realize that maybe we are working with one of the next federal prime ministers, the next federal environmentalist, or even the next provincial minister,” he said. “There is always that possibility.”

Commanda says most students have been engaging with the project and have shown great interest by asking questions.

“It gives them a sense of pride to say they helped build this,” he said.

Grade 9 student, Carole Wilson, says working on the canoe has been a lot of fun.

“I’ve learned a lot,” she said. “I like that I’m being taught things that I typically wouldn’t learn in school.”

Wilson says the experience has been educational in more than one way.

“There are lessons with the canoe and even bigger lessons behind that,” she said. “It teaches you patience, skills, and Chuck tells stories about his culture as we work.”

Wilson finds Commanda’s teachings both interesting and fun to listen to. She says she will miss him when he is gone, but she is excited for Friday’s finale when the canoe is put in the water.

“I would get in the canoe when it’s done, but I want to see somebody else do it first,” she laughed. “I’m sure it will float, but it makes me nervous because a bunch of high school kids worked on it.”