Interesting Contributors to the World of Wooden Canoes

The Wooden Canoe Builders' Guild and its members represent only the latest in a long line of individuals who have undertaken building attractive and serviceable watercraft from the materials provided by nature. Beginning with aboriginal peoples who built such craft out of necessity when and where needed and then non-aboriginal entrepreneurs who saw business opportunities, the methods of wooden canoe construction have evolved, over the years, to the techniques and materials used today. This evolution continues as current builders test new materials in a never ending quest to improve their product and their production.

On this page we acknowledge some of those who came before us and give some insight into their individual contributions. We hope that you will find this bit of historical perspective interesting and informative.

William Commanda

William (Morning Star) Commanda was born in 1913 in Kitigan Zibi, near Maniwaki, Quebec. As a young man he worked as a trapper and guide and became widely known for his unequalled skill in building traditional Algonquin birchbark canoes. He and his wife Mary both learned traditional skills from their families and together built more than 100 birch bark canoes as well as snow shoes, exceptional wooden furniture and leather, bead and quill work. They strived to keep these skills alive among the Algonquin of western Quebec through books, documentaries and workshops.

William continues to teach traditional skills to international audiences, reflecting his life experiences and the knowledge entrusted to him through ancient artifacts he has inherited.

Today, healthy birch trees large enough for canoe building are rare and, if this tradition is to survive, William Commanda urges us to rekindle our relationship with the earth:

"The Creator's gifts from our Mother, the Earth, have been good and kind to us all; sustaining us throughout our history. Today, if we look around, we can witness the results of our disregard for her well-being. It is now time for us to recognize her needs, to care for her, to rebalance our relationship with her, for if we do not do this, our children and their children will have no future. This will require us to rightly assert our love for all things and each other. Today is a good day to begin this work."

May Minto

May Minto was born near South Lake, Ontario in 1916 and, in 1920, moved with her family to Gull Lake where her father was the foreman on the construction of a survey school camp for the University of Toronto. In her teen years she helped her parents with the running of the camp she also acted as foreman in the construction of new camp buildings, working along with the men. During the war she and her twin sister worked in various war-time manufacturing plants in Toronto.

May's family began building canoes for the survey camp and for others in the area. As word of their craftsmanship spread the orders kept coming in and they decided it was time to really go into business. With her brothers moving away and her father unable to keep up by himself May took it on. In 1956 they moved to Minden where they opened Minto Marine. What did the men with whom she worked think about it? "I was their boss so they either worked for me or they had to go. I was the only one who knew how to build the canoes."

For decades she hand crafted 25 canoes a year; cutting the wood, bending it into shape and then fitting it together into one of the most graceful modes of transportation ever invented. "There's just something about a canoe that's extra nice", she says "and I think we had the best looking canoes around."

She became so good at it that when her brother decided to sell Minto Marine and she decided to retire too, the new owner begged her to come back when he realized he'd never be able to build an order of 12 canoes over the winter. She was 66 years old and those canoes were ready by the spring.

Working hard and working at a man's job seemed to come naturally to May. Whether it was making canoes, constructing new buildings at the University of Toronto Survey Camp on Gull Lake or becoming a "Rosie the Riveter" during the war. "I just loved it. I liked it much better than housework".

Walter Walker

Walter Walker was born in Ancaster, Ontario on November 4, 1907. Walter's father was a minister and this caused them to live in several towns and cities during his youth. In his high school days Walter had to make daily train trips to attend school. After graduating in 1926, Walter worked in the furniture making business. He moved to Lakefield, Ontario where he started building canoes for various companies and eventually became foreman for the Peterborough Canoe Company; a position he held from 1942 to 1961. In later years Walter spent much of the time building 20 and 30 foot racing canoes at Peel Marine in Lakefield. At age 78, Walter retired from full time work but continued to build canoe in the basement of his home and later made hand carved paddles. His work was in great demand by canoe enthusiasts.

Walter's exceptional craftsmanship has been recognized on numerous occasions. He was commissioned to build and present one of his canoes to Governor General Viscount Alexander of Tunis upon his visit to Peterborough in 1948. He also built and presented a cedar strip canoe to H.R.H. Prince Andrew upon his graduation from Lakefield College in 1977. In September, 1999 he presented Prince Andrew with a handcrafted paddle on his visit to the Canadian Canoe Museum.

Walter's life long passion for his craft was recognized by his induction as the first "Canoe Builder Emeritus" into the Canoe Builders Hall of Fame in 1944 and, more recently, by the Canoe Builder's Award from the Canadian Canoe Museum. His canoes have been featured attractions at the annual Sportsman's Shows in Toronto. He has been featured in many articles in various newspapers such as the KWRecord, the Peterborough Examiner and the Hamilton Spectator. Tourist magazines in the Kawarthas have promoted his passion and talents in human interest stories during the summer.

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