The word "canoa" or "canoe" appeared in the earliest writings about the First Peoples of the New World, and was adapted from the Arawak language of the Native Caribbeans. While the word simply referred to a boat or vessel in its original meaning, it has largely come to refer to a specific craft which is familiar to many people today
However, there is an ancient and rich diversity in canoe shapes, construction and purpose, a knowledge that Native builders have refined over the past centuries. Some canoes were elegantly carved and formed from the massive trees of the northern Pacific coast for trade, war and for hunting the great whales. Other builders carved smaller canoes, well suited for travelling rivers, creeks and small waterways. In the harsh treeless Arctic landscape, the generosity of the ocean and rivers provided Inuit builders with animals and driftwood, from which they perfected the seaworthy shapes of their covered hunting craft.
Birch bark canoe
Throughout much of the rest of Canada, the rind of the White Birch tree helped Native builders to overcome the challenges of overland and coastal travel. Builders of bark canoes removed the supple skin from these trees, tailored them into carefully proportioned vessels of their own traditions, and lined the entire craft with a lightweight wooden frame. In a land crisscrossed by a myriad of rivers and creeks, the birch bark canoe provided the traveller with a craft that could carry a great load, was light enough to be carried as the need arose, and which could manage the rigours of early travel.
"Voyageurs" by Frances Anne Hopkins (1838-1919)
Early 18th-century commercial interests demanded that Europeans venture deeper into the North American continent, where they discovered extensive Aboriginal trade networks already in place along established canoe routes. Moreover, they found that their own heavy boats were not suitable for plying the lakes, rivers and portages. Knowledgeable river guides and canoe builders were engaged to support their own expanding trade relations. Perhaps the most celebrated figure of this early commerce was the voyageur: that colourful paddler who remains enshrined beside the birch bark canoe in Canadian folklore today. By the late eighteenth century, large bark canoes paddled by voyageurs and used for distance transport had connected the businesses of the St. Lawrence valley with the Mississippi, as well as the western and northern reaches of the continent.