Museum of Civilization restores rare, well-travelled canoe

May 22, 2007

From New Brunswick to Galway to Gatineau: visitors can watch as Museum of Civilization restores rare, well-travelled canoe

Gatineau, May 22, 2007 – A 200-year-old Canadian birchbark canoe is home for a visit — and a facelift — this summer after spending most of its life in Ireland. The rare, six-metre (21-foot) Maliseet watercraft is on display at the Canadian Museum of Civilization as conservators begin a painstaking restoration of what may be the oldest canoe of its kind in the world.

Researchers at the National University of Ireland in Galway (NUIG) have entrusted their precious artifact to experts at the Museum of Civilization who are keen not only to repair the vessel, but also to help fill in the gaps in its intriguing history.

“This is the oldest and one of the largest Maliseet cargo canoes I have ever seen,” says Stephen Augustine, Curator of Maritimes Ethnology at the Canadian Museum of Civilization and a hereditary Mi’kmaq chief from New Brunswick, where the canoe was made. “Its size and age indicate it may have been used for transporting British military, surveyors, furs or possibly salmon up and down the Saint John River.”

Maliseet craftsmen built the canoe in the early 1820s and sold it to Stepney St. George, a captain in the British Army who shipped the boat to his residence, Headford Castle in Country Galway. When the potato famine devastated Ireland in the 1840s, St. George, a widower and Chairman of the Relief Committee, contracted famine fever from one of the people to whom he was serving soup rations. His tragic death in 1847 left seven children in the care of his older brother Richard. Richard St. George moved the family to Dublin and tried to avoid bankruptcy by leasing Headford Castle to a magistrate who then donated the canoe to NUIG’s James Mitchell Museum in 1852.

“This canoe is precious to us both for its beauty and for its remarkable history,” says Dr. Kathryn Moore, a professor at NUIG who has led the effort to have the canoe restored. “The canoe’s past encompasses war, colonization, famine and heroism, and it is a wonderful symbol of military, migration and trade relations between Canada, Ireland and Britain.”

The canoe is an excellent example of traditional construction, with finely shaped birchbark over white cedar ribs, attached with black spruce roots and sealed with pine resin and bear grease. Hand-sewn buoys along the canoe’s length are decorated with flowers and fiddleheads, motifs still used by some Maliseet canoe-makers near Fredericton, Augustine says.

Starting on May 22, visitors to the Museum’s Southern Salon on Level One will be able to watch as conservators restore the canoe and answer questions about its history and significance, weekdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. until August 31.

Media Information:

Chief, Media Relations
Canadian Museum of Civilization
Tel.: 819 776-7167

Media Relations Officer
Canadian Museum of Civilization
Tel.: 819 776-7169

Fax: 819 776-7187

2007-05-22 00:00:00.000