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Rare birchbark canoe repatriated from U.K. to Peterborough museum

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PETERBOROUGH, Ont. - The latest arrival at the Canadian Canoe Museum, a six-metre-long birchbark craft, is in poor shape. Ribs poke out from the sides and much of the frame has disintegrated.

But the vessel's remarkable history — and the fact that it has survived at all, becoming one of oldest birchbark canoes in the world — make it a "stunning find," says museum curator Jeremy Ward.

Transported in a sailing ship more than 200 years ago from North America to England where it wound up neglected in a barn in Cornwall, the canoe made its return trip this summer — with a bit of royal help — on a Canadian military aircraft, joining the Peterborough, Ont., museum's permanent collection.

Ward describes the artifact as "canoe remains."

"It's two ends, somewhat intact, minus a lot of important parts, and the midsection is just a collection of pieces."

Unlike dugout canoes, he said, birchbark canoes do not age well.

"At one point birchbark canoes were very common up and down the St. Lawrence River and elsewhere in the country. And yet they just disappear, they're almost ephemeral. And so to hear about a 230-year-old birchbark canoe is very, very rare."

Ward was first contacted about the canoe in February 2010 by the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth, England, which was seeking expert advice after its discovery in a barn at the nearby Enys estate, belonging to one of Cornwall's most prominent families.

That museum, which also worked with the British Museum on the find, concluded it was "a unique survival from the 18th century" and put it on display in 2011 under a sign reading: "Is this the oldest birchbark canoe in the world?"

According to Enys family lore, the canoe was brought back from Canada by Lt. John Enys, who went to Quebec in 1776 to fight in the American War of Independence. Enys made two trips to North America, returning to England after the second one in 1788.

A journal Enys kept of his North American adventures, published by a U.S. historian, describes fishing expeditions and encounters with natives but does not mention acquiring a canoe. Ward suspects it may in fact have been brought to England by the officer's regiment and presented to Enys, the regimental historian, as a gift.

Its precise origin remains a mystery. The curator believes it was built in the 1770s or 1780s near Quebec City in a style that points to the Maliseet and Abenaki nations. But the canoe builders of many aboriginal groups, including the Mohawk and Huron, influenced each other at the time, which makes it impossible, for now, to determine which nation can take the credit. Further research will be done, said Ward.

There are no plans to "fix it up," he added. "What we want to do is stick to traditional conservation, which will be a good thorough cleaning, documentation and then stabilization — so holding the parts together as best can be." The goal is to put it on display sometime in 2013.

The Enys family has donated their heirloom to the Peterborough museum, which holds the world's largest collection of canoes and kayaks — some 620 in total.

Kenneth Lister, assistant curator of anthropology at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, thinks there could be other ancient Canadian canoes waiting to be discovered in Europe, even ones much older than the Enys craft.

"If there's one like this there, why wouldn't there be others?" Lister said, noting that Europeans had a habit of bringing back souvenirs from the New World.

The dilapidated state can even be considered a plus, he said. With all its inner workings exposed, the canoe may offer new insight into the construction of such old watercraft.

In June the various bits and pieces were put on a flight to CFB Trenton, Ont., arranged with the help of the Canadian High Commission in London. On the same Globemaster transport plane was another canoe — a voyageur-style reproduction also belonging to the Peterborough museum — which represented Canada in the Queen's diamond jubilee pageant on the River Thames.

Prince Andrew, patron of the museum and a canoeing enthusiast since his days as a student at Lakefield — north of Peterborough — helped sponsor the repatriation.

The new arrival is slated to be unveiled Aug. 29 at the museum in "a welcoming-back-to-Canada event," Ward said.

Doug Williams, a Mississauga Anishinabe who teaches indigenous knowledge at Peterborough's Trent University, said the canoe's return has a spiritual dimension.

"I'm going to speak to it in the (Algonquin) language — it hasn't heard the language for hundreds of years. I'm going to bless it, I'm going to smudge it, I'm going to pray with it."

He said many First Nations currently lack the facilities to properly care for such fragile treasures.

"We ask the museums to be patient, to be careful also with our cultural objects. There will come a day when hopefully we can be funded to be able to repatriate those kinds of things back to First Nations communities where I think they ultimately belong."

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