A birchbark canoe held up with thin wooden poles and adorned with a pair of moccasins and a moose shoulder blade paddle is showcased in a gallery.
Pinock Smith, Wigwàs Chiman, 2017, birchbark, cedar, spruce root, spruce gum and ash wood. Courtesy of the artist. Installation view, Canoe, 2022, Remai Modern, Saskatoon. Photo: Carey Shaw.

Program Guide reflects on learnings from birchbark canoe builder Pinock Smith

The exhibition Canoe explores how works of art documenting the historical structure and usage of Indigenous vessels have played a role in carrying cultural knowledge forward. In addition to historical works by artists including Frances Anne Hopkins, Cornelius Krieghoff, David Milne and Lucius O’Brien, the exhibition features two full-size canoes, including a birchbark canoe created by Pinock Smith, an Anishinaabe canoe maker from the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg Nation near Maniwaki, Québec

The birchbark canoe was an essential method of water transportation for Indigenous people who lived in forested regions of the country, later adopted by European explorers and fur traders as the most prudent way to navigate the dense wilderness.

Remai Modern Program Guide Kelly Ann Tolley grew up near Smith on the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg Nation. She learned how to make numerous items, including canoes, directly from him. She contributed to the exhibition at Remai Modern, connecting with Smith and curating a portion of the exhibition that features his work. Read on to learn about her experiences with the artist and bringing his work to Saskatoon.

Pinock Smith, Wigwàs Chiman, 2017, birchbark, cedar, spruce root, spruce gum and ash wood. Courtesy of the artist. Installation view, Canoe, 2022, Remai Modern, Saskatoon. Photo: Carey Shaw.
Pinock Smith, Wigwàs Chiman, 2017, birchbark, cedar, spruce root, spruce gum and ash wood. Courtesy of the artist. Installation view, Canoe, 2022, Remai Modern, Saskatoon. Photo: Carey Shaw.

Growing up in Kitigan Zibi I was lucky to be immersed in nature and traditions. My Dad Wilmer Tolley was a trapper and a guide for tourists coming to hunt and fish in our traditional territory. My Mishomis (Grandfather) Cyril Tolley was also a guide who taught his son how to survive and live in nature. They had a beautiful trapline right by flowing waters. 

Pinock is my neighbour in Kitigan Zibi. We both grew up on Kichi Mikan (Ottawa Road). In 1991, Pinock was teaching us woodwork at Kitigan Zibi Kikinamadinan (school). My first project was a cradle board. Over the years, we learned how to make canoes, bows, drums, paddles, and rattles from Pinock. I would travel around on the pow wow trail, and I would see Pinock doing demonstrations all over Canada and the United States. 

I moved to Saskatoon in 2004 to attend the University of Saskatchewan. I had no idea at that time that I would end up staying here. A couple of degrees and four children later, I still love Saskatoon! I work at Remai Modern as Program Guide (Indigenous Art). While in a meeting, they spoke of the upcoming exhibitions and mentioned one about the canoe. Instantly my mind went wild as we Algonquins are the original creators of the birchbark canoe. I messaged Pinock and he said, “I can lend you a canoe!” 

I reached out to our Head Curator Michelle Jacques and told her about my vision. Without hesitation she welcomed my knowledge. We had a meeting and she made getting the birchbark canoe to Saskatoon a reality. I had zero experience and she walked me through it effortlessly. We met on our lunch hour and after work. Several staff members including Michelle smudged the canoe when it arrived Remai Modern. To me this is a step in the right direction. Reconciliation is about walking together towards a better future for us all.  

A black-and-white newspaper article from 1959 shows two men holding a birchbark canoe.
A 1959 newspaper article shows two men holding a birchbark canoe, one of which is artist Pinock Smith’s grandfather Charlie Smith.

Once I shared my vision of bringing Wigwàs Chiman to Remai Modern for the exhibition, I also wanted to display a paddle because what’s a canoe without a paddle? I then asked Pinock if he had a moose shoulder blade, moose raw hide and some ash wood to make a traditional paddle. Pinock was happy to create a paddle for me to include in the exhibition. The moccasins in the exhibition are the moccasins my Mishomis (Grandfather) walked in. 

Pinock creates art through nature. His pieces are functional and all natural. I am proud that I can bring a part of my culture and the forests I grew up in to display in Saskatoon and teach history through the exhibition. 

I was happy to have cultural art taught to me at a young age. This sparked a lifelong journey of artmaking and appreciation. I truly enjoy sharing the knowledge I have and sparking young minds to create art! I am grateful for the knowledge Pinock shared with me, my community and anyone who wants to listen and learn. He’s truly one of a kind and this is shown through his beautiful art! 

Building a canoe is an art form that links our families and communities together. It also reinforces our commitment to reconciliation and reminds us of our responsibilities to live in harmony and peace amongst all living things. 

The canoe represents a shared experience that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can relate to. The birchbark canoe continues to be a link to cultural strength, offering an opportunity to bring people together in a shared appreciation. 

Canoe is on view until May 8 in Remai Modern’s free Connect Gallery. The exhibition is supported by BMO Private Wealth and Grit & Scott McCreath and Family.