Cree Elder recalls stories of building canoes with his father

Canoe commissioned by Cree Elder in Alberta sits in storage.


Cree Elder Elzear Orr says he was in his twenties when he helped his father make birch bark canoes at Chipewyan Lake.

“My father was a man that wants to do things he completed,” Orr tells APTN News. “You have to complete the things you work on no matter how hard it is. That’s what I did myself, he said.”

His father, Arnold Orr and Elzear were commissioned by the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton to build one in the early 1970s.

The canoe is in storage and isn’t accessible to the public; but a film of the canoe-making, by Gene Gregoret remains in the Alberta archives.

Elzear recently re-discovered it on YouTube.

“At that time when we started the canoe, a lot of young people came,” says Orr in Cree. “They came to watch and help. They had questions.”

Every aspect of the canoe was built with materials from the land.

“Many things my dad had learned, his dad had taught him. My grandpa had made birch bark canoes and toboggans and snowshoes, drums,” Orr says.

Orr says it takes more than a month to finish a project like this – weather permitting.

He says since being commissioned, he and his father have made six more canoes.

“Today it would be nice for the youth to be taught,” he says. “It would be nice to have it because I don’t know how long I’m going to live for.”

Orr and his father were the subject of a documentary by Gene Gregoret called Craftsman which documented Orr and his father making the canoe.

Video Journalist / Calgary

Tamara is Métis from Winnipeg, Manitoba. She received a diploma in interactive media arts at Assiniboine Community College in Brandon and has worked as a videographer for CBC in Winnipeg and Iqaluit. Tamara was hired by APTN in 2016 as a camera/editor and is now a video journalist in our Calgary bureau.