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about Treaty Canoe

We are all Treaty People

It's complicated being a Treaty person, whether a Settler, new immigrant, Indigenous, Metis, Inuit, etc.. Me, I'm a white Settler of Anglo-Scots extraction.

I am not Indigenous, nor do I claim any expertise or authority on issues pertaining to Settler/Indigenous relations. I'm an artist asking questions through my work.

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How Treaty Canoe was made

Treaty Canoe was made with many hands. About 25 years ago Dr. Brian Owens, then archivist at the University of Windsor, threw some Transcription Dinner Parties. I needed a lot of treaties to make a canoe. What I didn't know at the time was what Dr Owens had done would profoundly change Treaty Canoe forever, he was part of making it about community.

That's one.

But I need to back up. Maybe 28 years ago I started talking about this idea to make a canoe out of Treaties. In '94, sort of but not really inverting the conditions of exploration and discover, I had paddled down the Thames, in England, in a faux birch bark canoe, the skin being B&W photos of bark. Glenn Fallis of Voyager Canoe, in Millbrook Ontario helped me with that. That canoe became to model and mold for Treaty Canoe.

That's two.

But I had been working with the canoe even before that. It must have been about '86 when my Mum asked what I wanted for my birthday, and I said 'a canoe'. She replied that if I told her it would somehow be used for my work as an artist, she was all for it. I insisted it wasn't and she bought it anyway. Sometimes mother's really do know best. That's three.

I made a 24 mile long postcard of the shoreline of the Detroit River, photographing it all as I paddled the length. Then I made a large homage photo/painting to E.H. Hahn who designed our Canadian Bark Canoe silver dollar.

Let's call that four, for inspiration.

But the point is I was talking about this canoe made of treaties and Dermot Wilson, friend, artist, curator, started in on me, insisting I make it. I was terribly reluctant, figuring only trouble would follow. It did. Dermot took our email correspondence and unbeknownst to me turned it into an exhibition proposal for the committee (of six?) at NAC, the Niagara Artist's Company in St Catherine's, Ontario, where he was director, and submitted the application for an exhibition. He called me to give me four months notice of the opening, December 1999.

That's eleven?

I had a lot to do.

So Brian's dinner parties were pretty crucial. My first attempt to make the canoe was an utter failure. I needed more treaties. Brian simply threw another party. He was unflappable. The people he invited were colleagues, students, friends.

Let's call that 12 through 30.

Only one person could claim any Indigenous 'blood'. Transcribing something from printed text to hand written is difficult enough. I had them do it with dip-pen and India ink, onto some reproduction hand-made 18th c linen paper, provided, gratis, by David Carruthers, Proprietor of the St Armand Paper Company, Montreal, Quebec. He has a fondness for canoes.


Suzanne helped tie the ribbons that hold it together, and drove with me in an old pickup with holes in the floor and three on the tree through a blizzard to get it to NAC. Gustave Morin, poet, was working as a Prepator at NAC and when I wanted, in a state of exhaustion, to 'just toss it on the ground, like a canoe', he insisted I trust him. He hung it from the centre thwart, and lit it from above with a simple bare lightbulb. It cast a single perfect shadow of another canoe, evoking the Two Row Wampum. I was moved to tears.

32, 33

Tory James, Turtle Clan, Oneida Nation of the Thames, whom I have known for over forty five years, soon became Treaty Canoe's Champion.


I've made two more versions of Treaty Canoe, and it has been written about, talked about, and been a lot of places since; Grade schools, high schools, law schools, art schools, art galleries, museums, community centres, churches, protest marches, Indigenous communities, walkabouts, road sides, roof tops, it' a long journey we are on together. 

Each time it's exhibited, shown, displayed, carried, more hands are laid upon it, and new layers of meaning are writ.


We hope to see you some day.

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