Water is an integral part of Métis life. It brings sustenance and connects northern communities. Roads connecting many northern Métis communities in Saskatchewan are sparse, for example, (Ile-a-la Crosse, Buffalo Narrows, La Loche, Patunauk, Pinehouse), whereas water is plentiful. In many cases, travel by water is preferred over road travel in summer months. These communities are connected via the Churchill River system.
Travel by boat is not a new development in these communities, it is part of an age old tradition that is still practiced today. Saskatchewan’s oldest communities are connected through the different river systems: Saskatchewan, Churchill and Beaver. Ile-a-la-Crosse (Sakitawak in Cree, meaning where rivers meet) is Saskatchewan’s second oldest community, next to Cumberland House, and was founded in 1779.(1) It connects the Churchill and Beaver river systems. The Churchill river system connects Ile-a-la Crosse with Hudson Bay, and ultimately Europe. This route was actively used by the Hudson’s Bay Company [HBC] to freight goods, especially fur, to ships where it eventually ended up in Europe. The HBC desperatly needed to transport large amounts of fur from the interior to Europe. Given the difficulty in building birchbark canoes at York Factory due to a lack of Birch trees, the York boat was created, measuring 30’ from bow to stern, and able to carry three and a half tons of goods. (2) Many of the men who freighted and built these boats were Métis. This tradition of boat building has lasted the test of time in many Métis families along these river systems.
The York boat still thrives in the Métis communities of northwestern Saskatchewan. It has been adapted from it’s original form, into a much smaller vessel used for transportation, fishing and hunting. For example, Jules Daigneault, a respected boat builder from Ile-a-la-Crosse, is still constructing wooden skiffs for the community. The skiff is constructed of two to three sheets of 5/8” marine grade fir plywood, a number of dimensional SPF (spruce, pine or fir) 1”x4” and 2”x4” boards, a 4”x4” spruce bow stem, nails, roofing tar and some marine paint. He uses basic tools: skillsaw, jigsaw, and a hammer to construct the skiff. The boats start with the bow stem – a treated 4”x4” post that is shaped with planers – the angle of which determines the height of the bow and angle of the boat.
The bow is the boss of the boat, it determines the overall shape, bow angle and stability of the boat – Jules Daignault
The plywood sheets are cut in half, and nailed into the bow stem. A patch of plywood connects two more extensions of plywood making the total length of the boat. Eight identical ribs are constructed and sandwiched between the sheets of plywood. The remaining front ribs are tapered in towards the bow. The plywood floor is then nailed and fitted into place and capped with 1”x4” boards that have been soaked in the lake to allow bending. The gunwales are also 1”x4” and are now fitted into the boat adding needed rigidity. Marine paint finishes the boats and creates a barrier from the elements.
Once finished these boats are fast, quiet and durable lasting about 15 years. It takes about three days and $400 to construct a 16’ version. The boats are typically built from 16’ to 18’ and the shape of the bow varies between communities. Each community has slight variations on the skiff due to the type and size of lake it will be used on. Skiffs in Buffalo Narrows typically have the tallest bows due to Churchill and Peter Pond lakes. The swells can reach up to 6’ tall on these lakes. Skiffs in Ile-a-la Crosse have lower bows because swells only reach up the 3’.
Elders like Jules Daignault are integral parts of their communities passing on culture, language, and knowledge through skiff building. While little information is available about Métis boat building, its integration into northern prairie Métis culture suggests a potential for further tectonic studies and architectural applications.