Interview with local Anishinaabe artist Tia Cavanagh
October 21st, 2019
By Dawn Pond, GreenUP’s Downtown Vibrancy Project and Depave Paradise Program Coordinator
This interview is part of the Jiimaan’ndewengadnong project. These oral histories are being shared and celebrated. The stories in this article have been adapted, with permission, from recorded conversations. This audio recording is available here and for visitors to the Jiimaan’ndewengadnong park through phone numbers on the park plaque thanks to Nexicom and Impact Communications.
Tia Cavanagh is the talented artist creating the art for the Jiimaan’ndewemgadnong (The Place Where the Heart of the Canoe Beats) pocket park. Tia is an accomplished artist. She has created public art in Toronto and recently she created a mural for Trent University. We sat down together this spring and I asked what the canoe means to her. She shared her experience co-organizing an inclusive birchbark canoe build in Curve Lake with her friend Madeline Whetung.
“We applied to the Ontario Arts Council Grant, Indigenous Education Fund, which was actually only running for one year… It’s important to pay people for their skills. We did find a [birchbark canoe] builder–his name is Chuck Commanda–who does tons and tons of builds. He’s really quite a producer and it’s his livelihood. And really what was important to us was to communicate to him was that we wanted this build to center around two-spirit and Indigenous women in the creation of this canoe.”
Chuck Commanda is a master birchbark canoe builder from the community of Kitigan Zibi, Quebec. He has been building canoes since he was a child, as a student of his highly respected grandparents, Mary and William Commanda. He has spent more than 10 years building canoes in the traditional style and teaching others the craft.
“Madeline Whetung and I wanted to be his assistants. We really wanted to learn. It was really about us gaining that knowledge and then creating that opportunity for other folks to join in and build and learn as well… We really wanted our own knowledge to be uplifted.“
The Season for Canoe Building
“…It was a speedy build. Our builder was on quite a tight timeline, and had another build scheduled. That’s how he makes a living and acquiring birchbark and all that–you can only really do it during certain times. I mean, there are things that can be made with winter bark. But for a birchbark canoe, we really needed to like prepare the birchbark, throughout a warmer temperature. 25 Celsius or higher is the best temperature to acquire birchbark for a summer canoe. …So it’s about two weeks, the build itself. And really, it was every day, every day from nine o’clock to about five.”
An Endangered Cultural Practice
“The birchbark itself, we got it and prepared it close to Algonquin Park. When we hired the builder, Chuck, basically he’s responsible for finding that tree. So we were listening in, and experiencing, and we saw the difficulties he had in doing so. Considering the quality of birch trees right now is important, because certain diseases … are taking over them. We wanted to find one quite big. For most adult people, it needs to be big enough that you can reach your arm around and not quite touch your hands.“
“We did end up finding a tree, but it had a lot of like knobs on the bark, which is always cause for leakage. So it’s really difficult to even find one in proper conditions. Considering the state of our forests, the kind of disease that some trees are suffering from, and the fact that now a lot of birch trees, when they get to a certain age, just die. I think it’s becoming more and more rare. Having only a handful of folks in this area that are able, and that have the knowledge, to build a birchbark canoe, coupled with the fact that some of these very large and healthy birch trees are really few and far between. There’s this kind of endangered quality to it which makes it even more special.”
Sealing the Canoe
Tia told me that, once the canoe is built, it needs to be made water-tight with a natural gum sealant made from tree sap. She explained that this process requires skill.
“The tree sap is collected. Then it has to be cleaned and rendered with a couple other things added to it. There are different recipes out there. And that’s one thing that I’m not that educated on making … but I did see a couple of recipes recently that looked to be really good. And it’s really an art form creating it.”
Not just Birchbark
Tia’s favourite lesson from the canoe building experience is the fact that birchbark canoes are made from parts of many tree species.
“There are various other trees that go into making a birchbark canoe. And yet we call it a birchbark canoe, right? Because aesthetically, you see the birchbark, but spruce sap comes into it, and cedar, and hardwood, like oak. So I think that is what’s really special to consider, that all of these different trees have different properties that they add to a birchbark canoe.”
Tia and Madeline’s canoe is now built and has been featured in one of Tia’s artworks.
“Madeline and I would love to do a trip or two. Madeline has a lot of knowledge of waterways and the lock system. The making of the canoe, for us, in part was about, learning how to make the canoe but then also that project we saw it living on in different ways, right, a different kind of resurgence, going ricing and sharing teachings about the waterways.”
In their own voices: how to listen to these & other canoe stories
Follow @PtboGreenUP on social media to be notified when audio of Tia’s story and more canoe stories will be available on our website: greenup.on.ca/vibrancy. When completed, audio of these interviews will also be available to visitors at the Jiimaan’ndewemgadnong pocket park by calling the phone numbers on the park plaques.
This kind of remarkable, authentic project doesn’t happen without a lot of collaboration and generous support. First and foremost, chi miigwech to Tia Cavanagh, Madeline Whetung, Shirley Williams, and Terry Musgrave for sharing their stories. Thanks to Nexicom and Impact Communications for donating their time and skills to make the audio interviews available. Thanks to the support of Lett Architects, Engage Engineering, Tree House Timberworks, Accurex, Coco Paving, Ralph’s Paving, Alderville Black Oak Savanna, The Food Shop, The Silver Bean café, and many more. The space itself has been generously made accessible to the public by Euphoria Wellness Spa, and the art installation was also generously sponsored by Kim and Mark Zippel. This project is also part of a larger movement led by Green Communities Canada and their national Depave Paradise Initiative. Funding for this project was provided by the Ontario Trillium Foundation. The Jiimaan’ndewemgadnong pocket park and Downtown Vibrancy Project are a partnership between the Downtown Business Improvement Area (DBIA) and GreenUP’s Depave Paradise project.
If you are interested in supporting the project by donating services or providing sponsorship please email Dawn Pond (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more details.
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