When is a war canoe not a war canoe?

Dr. Janice Forsyth's research explores how Canoe Kayak Canada’s war canoe event differs greatly from traditional Indigenous “war canoe” practices and origins.

A 1910 postcard depicting a war canoe race at the Gorge Waterway in Victoria

A 1910 postcard depicting a war canoe race at the Gorge Waterway in Victoria. Photo credit: The Valentine & Sons Publishing Co., Ltd., Creative Commons 4.0

For decades, paddling regattas across Canada have featured an official event called war canoe, in which 14 crewmates kneel and paddle as one in a long boat, with the coxswain standing and steering at the back.

However, when Dr. Janice Forsyth showed a picture of this boat to traditional Indigenous paddlers, they laughed: “That’s not a war canoe!”

Traditional Indigenous versions of “war canoe” are very different from the version sanctioned by Canoe Kayak Canada, the sport’s national governing body. Dr. Forsyth, a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation and professor in UBC’s school of kinesiology, has been researching the history and evolution of both practices.

How did you get involved in this research?

Canoe Kayak Canada reached out to ask if I’d be interested in helping them understand the history of this watercraft, and had funding from the Canadian Olympic Committee to do this work. They began with a seemingly simple question: “Where did we get the name ‘war canoe’?”

I didn’t know the answer, but said, “If you’re willing to embark on a journey with me and be sincere about it, then let’s go figure it out together.”

We created this whole historical project around that question, looking into archival materials around canoeing history and narratives of war canoe, trying to figure out where the name and practice came from.

Where did the term come from?

The name “war canoe” was used by travellers going back as far as the 1500s. Spanish, Portuguese, French, British and other explorers used it basically any time they saw a bunch of Indigenous men in a big canoe.

One reason for this could be to justify going to war against Indigenous people and taking over their land, because it’s hard to justify what you do to peaceful people or people who were defending their territory from invaders. Many of the explorers also wrote narratives about their travels and would sometimes try to make it seem more dangerous than it was.

That doesn’t mean that Indigenous people didn’t go to war in canoes, because obviously they did. But people got around in all kinds of different vessels.

How did war canoe become a sport?

It reflects the way in which colonialism set down in Canada, and the way newcomers and settlers picked up Indigenous culture. In youth summer camps, between the early 1800s and the 1950s, there were many stories and images of war canoes. Canoe makers would market their canoes to outdoor enthusiasts and play on this idea of the Indian and the canoe. The idea became ingrained in Canadian culture, and is now embedded in a national sport organization.

Canada has the only national sport organization with a war canoe event. It doesn’t exist in any international competitions.

What have you found so far? What else are you hoping to learn?

We confirmed that Canoe Kayak Canada’s version of war canoe is not situated in an Indigenous reality and doesn’t come from an Indigenous culture, even though some Indigenous people have embraced this event. 

Canoe Kayak Canada’s war canoe and Indigenous “war canoe” are completely separate practices. Indigenous “war canoe” is not standardized and isn’t necessarily about competition. Each Indigenous practice is unique to the family and the culture. Yet, their stories are not well known in part because of the dominance of the institutionalized version. That’s why the second part of our project will entail oral interviews with Indigenous “war canoe” families, to understand these Indigenous stories and help address this erasure.

What does this long-standing misnomer say about colonialism?

It shows there’s still a lot more work to be done. It’s really good to see national sport organizations like Canoe Kayak Canada being proactive in terms of trying to understand their own history, because that’s what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission encourages people to do. But in terms of Canadian culture and especially sport, it goes to show how deeply embedded colonialism is. We’re the only country in the world that has institutionalized a sport called war canoe, and it’s taken this long—and the TRC—for us to question it.