It’s back: our oldest canoe comes home

The Irish returned it, but no one told the people who made it

It’s back: our oldest canoe comes homeThe world’s oldest canoe is coming back to New Brunswick. But someone forgot to tell the Maliseet, the First Nations people who constructed it.

Built about 180 years ago on a riverbank in Fredericton, the Grandfather Akwiten canoe has had an amazing journey. It was taken to Ireland in 1825 by a British officer—possibly stolen, possibly a gift. It wound up at the National University of Ireland in 1850 and hung from a roof there until 2001. Falling apart and full of pigeons, its history was forgotten and it was almost thrown out.

Then, eight years ago, an Irish researcher took interest in the tree root-sewn boat, and eventually had it sent to the Canadian Museum of Civilization for restoration in 2007.

Newspapers announced it would be on display until the restoration was finished—which was the first any of the Maliseet heard about it. “We weren’t even told that it was coming,” says Kim Brooks, a member of Fredericton’s St. Marys First Nation. “They had a ceremony to welcome it that was not conducted by our people.”

Brooks’ family wrote letters to Irish politicians, newspapers and the university asking that the canoe be returned to the people who built it. The letters were published in Irish newspapers, and the university soon announced a change in ownership.

So now, instead of going back to Ireland, the canoe will arrive in New Brunswick this week. It will be displayed for three months at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, and then given back to the Maliseet people.

“It feels great,” says Brooks. But she admits there’s one more hurdle: canoes are hard to preserve, and the Maliseet don’t have a place to keep it. So while Brooks is happy to have the canoe back, now she says she hopes the Beaverbrook will keep it—or move it to another museum where it will be safe.