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Long before Europeans arrived on Canadian shores, canoes were the primary mode of quick transportation for Indigenous Peoples across the continent.
Later, French fur traders, or voyageurs, travelled through the wilderness by canoe.
The canoe is a Canadian icon, like the Stanley Cup or a Tim Horton’s Double Double.
If given the chance, would you take a longer canoe trip?
Perhaps one that lasts for a few months and covers thousands of kilometres?
Well, that is exactly what ten teams of men did in 1967.
They started in the Rocky Mountains, and they continued their journey through the Canadian Prairies, into the Canadian Shield, past the Great Lakes and into Montreal.
A trip of over 5,000 kilometres by canoe.
Portaging over land, navigating rapids, and enjoying the stunning scenery our country has to offer.
All done, to celebrate Canada’s centennial.
I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx!
Sometimes I am asked what year I would go back to if I had a time machine.
It’s a tough question for a historian like me so I don’t have a single answer…
I would like to visit pre-colonial Canada and see the mostly untouched wilderness.
Wouldn’t mind seeing Paul Henderson score his famous goal in 1972.
But in between is perhaps the year on the top of my list.
For 12 months, Canada celebrated in a grand style.
The Confederation Train went across the country, and millions of Canadians went aboard to see each train car depicting parts of our history inside. There was Chief Dan George and his Lament to Confederation soliloquy at the Vancouver centennial celebrations on July 1, which helped kickstart Indigenous activism movement in Canada.
We can’t forget Expo 67, arguably the biggest international event Canada had ever hosted to that point.
Planning for most of these events started four years earlier when the Centennial Commission was organized. The goal? Create projects to promote Canada’s 100th birthday.
Among all the ideas, one emerged that was truly unique.
Ten teams of men, from each province and territory, would take to Canadian rivers on an epic journey that crossed four provinces and two-thirds of the country.
This would become the Centennial Voyageur Canoe Pageant.
Today, we tend to romanticize the lives of voyageurs.
They enjoyed the freedom of being in the wilderness, traveling through the beautiful land that would become Canada.
These men were primarily French-Canadian, and they became famous because of their strength and endurance.
They sang songs, camped under the stars, and had lives of adventure.
The truth is that their lives were difficult.
Voyageurs were required to carry two 90-pound fur bundles and their canoe for several kilometres between navigable waters.
Some were so strong they could carry four or five bundles due to years of heavy hauling.
The canoe is as much a part of the voyageur story as the men themselves.
They were 36 feet long and six feet wide, each weighing 600 pounds and carrying three tons of cargo.
A typical work day began at 2 a.m. as voyageurs set off on their journey. Every hour they stopped for a few minutes to smoke a pipe, but they continued traveling until 10 p.m. when they made camp.
With all that heavy hauling, hernias were not uncommon, and the nearest doctor would often be hundreds of kilometres away.
It was not unusual for voyageurs to drown in the rivers they traveled on, especially in rapids.
As they traveled, the men sang songs and musical ability became a prized skill among voyageurs and some were paid more because of it.
Many French-Canadian folk songs emerged, which exist to this day including this one…
Most became voyageurs in their early-20s and continued working until their 60s.
Since they did not make enough income to retire early, they often worked until they couldn’t anymore.
They travelled between forts that became some of our most important cities including Winnipeg and Edmonton.
Their work built the companies of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company, which themselves helped build the country.
What better way to celebrate that heritage, than with a canoe race across the country?
Gene Rheaume, a Metis social worker who was also the Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament for the Northwest Territories came up with idea and shared it with his brother Jim, and Norm Tyson.
Norm had organized the three-day canoe sprints at the annual Gold Rush Canoe Derby in Flin Flon, Manitoba and knew how to get the entire pageant off the ground.
Entries were set at $1,000, about $7,823 in 2023 funds.
Each team had ten men, with six paddling the boat in shifts along the way.
The winning team’s prize was set at $1,500 per man, which is $13,000 today.
The second and third place teams each received $500 per man.
The route would retrace the original journeys of the voyageurs from previous centuries.
Most of the journey would take the men along rivers, with up to 14 hours of paddling a day, while also carrying the canoes through 70 portages 113 kilometers long.
In the summer of 1965, 12 Indigenous men took part in a 21-day trial run of the canoe pageant through 965 kilometres of northern Ontario wilderness.
The men were all from the Northwest Territories and were paid seven dollars a day for the journey.
They also met Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson during a stop in Ottawa.
Despite the success of that trial run, by December of 1965, there were concerns the entire pageant wouldn’t run at all.
The Canadian Centennial Commission announced on Nov. 30 that if the provinces and corporate sponsors did not submit funding by Dec. 31, 1965, the commission would pull the program.
Thankfully, everything was worked out and by January 1966 canoers went to work.
For the Alberta team, winter training included hitting the University of Alberta pool and practicing paddling techniques among the crew.
Throughout 1966, provinces and territories joined the pageant.
By May, every province and territory, except Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island had signed on.
In the summer of 1966, trials were held to prepare canoers ready for the big race the following year.
The ten-day trial ran from Fort St. James in British Columbia, down the Fraser River, through Prince George to Vancouver and across the Strait of Georgia to Victoria.
The total distance covered in the trial was 864 kilometres.
The Fraser River was a perfect testing ground as it goes through some of the most difficult terrain in Canada.
It is the longest river in British Columbia flowing 1,375 kilometre from the Fraser Pass in the Rocky Mountains to the Strait of Georgia south of Vancouver.
Along the way, it goes through some of the most difficult rapids in Canada, including Hells Gate, where the river narrows to 35 metres, about 130 kilometres northeast of Vancouver.
The trials drew a crowd of 4,000 people in Prince George, which gave organizers confidence that the following year, the big event would be well-attended by Canadians along the pageant course.
The trial run was won by the Alberta team, who finished two days ahead of the other teams.
On Nov. 29, 1966, the Centennial Voyageurs Canoe Pageant launch date of May 24, 1967, was announced.
With that… the scene was set for the longest canoe trip in history.
For the voyageur pageant teams used canoes made of fiberglass, measuring 7.6 metres, 1.2 metres wide and 40 centimetres deep. and weighed about 113 kilograms.
The canoes were each named for a known Canadian explorer, including Samuel de Champlain for New Brunswick, David Thompson for Alberta and Alexander Mackenzie for the Northwest Territories.
Paddles were made of laminated wood and were selected by each paddler and the captain.
Unlike voyageurs of bygone days, these voyageurs wouldn’t need to transport food with them. A truck would meet them at each stop and provide hot meals waiting when rowers to arrive.
It carried 30,000 eggs, 21 tons of bacon, 60,000 pancakes, 10,000 quarts of milk, half a ton of honey, 6 tons of steaks, 2.5 tons of potatoes, 5,000 loaves of bread and 1.5 tons of butter.
A dietician was hired by the federal government to create the best menu for the voyageurs to help manage calorie consumption because the men would be burning such a large amount each day.
Oh, and one more thing was needed that would help make the entire trip a lot more enjoyable…6,000 litres of insect repellent.
Teams were made up of Indigenous Peoples, lawyers, farmers, miners, guides, trappers, musicians, railroaders, Inuit, skiers, laborers, and students.
Each team of 10 was made up of a cross-section of men from across the country, one community was overly represented, Flin Flon, which sits on the border of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
The Manitoba team had nine men from Flin Flon, Don Starkell, an adventurer, diarist and author, came from elsewhere in the province.
The Saskatchewan team had seven members from Flin Flon, while the captains of both the Alberta and British Columbia teams both had a history with the city.
As I mentioned every province and territory was represented except Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, who did not take part because the two provinces didn’t have a strong paddling culture.
On May 24, 1967, at 12:40 p.m. MST, ten teams met at Rocky Mountain House, ready to begin a very long journey.
As the ten teams pushed off into the North Saskatchewan River, the rain fell heavily but that didn’t stop the crowd from seeing the start of this epic race.
On hand was Alberta Lt. Governor Grant MacEwan, and Secretary of State Judy LaMarsh.
The Alberta team took a quick lead on that first leg of the journey.
77 kilometres, from Rocky Mountain House to Alder Flats, Alberta
The Calgary Herald reported,
“The Thompson bucked and pitched through the white water of the rapids as its six crewmen in their orange shirts and voyageur headbands stroke mightily, putting a quarter mile of river between them and the next canoe.”
Cars lined bumper-to-bumper for five kilometres along the river to see the voyageurs go by.
On the third day, thousands of people lined the banks of the North Saskatchewan River to watch the men paddle by.
Many were dressed in costumes from the Klondike Gold Rush era. When the canoeists reached Edmonton, they were greeted by Princess Alexandra, Queen Elizabeth II’s cousin.
In the evening, a Voyageurs Ball was held at the Hotel MacDonald.
At this point, Manitoba was in the lead having logged 17 hours and 33 minutes on the river.
From this point forward, Manitoba would nearly always maintain the lead in the pageant.
On May 30, near Twin Hills, Alberta, about 130 kilometres northeast of Edmonton on the North Saskatchewan River, members of the Cree and Blackfoot First Nations staged a mock battle for the voyageurs as they arrived.
A total of seven Alberta First Nations took part in the mock battle.
On hand was Senator James Gladstone, the first Indigenous Senator in Canadian history.
He presented medals to the chiefs of each of the First Nations.
A pow-wow was also held, with a 100-gun salute for the canoes.
If that wasn’t enough, former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker also spoke at a reception for the paddlers.
By early June, things were not going well for the Nova Scotia team.
They weren’t dead last, and they were short of money and equipment.
Of all the canoe teams, Nova Scotia’s was the only one not sponsored by their home province. Despite that, the paddlers were all enjoying themselves Captain John Bothwell said,
“We’re having lots of fun. We’re running last and we haven’t a real chance of catching the leaders, so there is no pressure on us.”
On June 9, the first injury was reported when John Ross, an 18-year-old member of the Northwest Territories team, was taken to hospital with knee injuries.
On June 13, the voyageurs reached The Pas, which is near Flin Flon.
With so many men from the city taking part, this was a major stop on the journey. Fittingly, the Manitoba team was the first to arrive.
When they did, less than 100 people were there to greet them.
The team was doing so well they arrived two hours early. As news spread that the team was in The Pas, the crowd quickly swelled to over 1,000.
A convoy of cars made the trip from Flin Flon to see the voyageurs.
Manitoba captain Norm Crerar even asked his mother if she could bring him some of her famous banana nut loaf for the team to enjoy. He was met with over 100 banana nut loaves.
. The Manitoba team took some and shared the rest with their competition.
On June 26, the longest portage route of the entire journey began for the teams.
Paddlers would have to transport their canoes 30 kilometres from Lake Manitoba to the aptly named Portage La Prairie.
This is where a bit of tension rose between the teams.
John Nikel with the Alberta team stated that not every team kept up the spirit of the voyage on the portage.
Teams were allowed to portage anyway that they saw fit, except by motorized vehicle.
New Brunswick’s team found a way around that when they used an airplane wheel to carry the canoe on the portage route.
Other teams used a horse cart to haul the canoe.
Only Alberta and Quebec carried the canoe by foot like so many other men did centuries before
“What that airplane wheel has to do with re-enacted history, I don’t know.”
On Canada Day, the voyageurs were in Winnipeg and were greeted by 20,000 residents who welcomed them in the pouring rain. Among them was Lord George Nigel Douglas-Hamilton, the 10th Earl of Selkirk.
His great-grandfather was Lord Selkirk, who brought the first European settlers to the Red River Valley.
By this point, the paddlers were in the best shape of their lives.
Six doctors examined the paddlers at the St. Boniface General Hospital in Winnipeg.
One doctor said that they had muscles on muscles.
On July 13, the paddlers reached the halfway point of their journey. They had dealt with thunderstorms, rainy days, rapids, long portages, mosquitoes, and black flies. Yet, by all accounts, they were having the time of their lives.
While the New Brunswick team slept a few days later someone came along and stole their canoe. On July 15 the thieves made their escape using poles instead of paddles, but they didn’t get far. They were arrested by the Ontario Provincial Police near the Manitou Rapids in the middle of the night.
The canoe was recovered and returned to the New Brunswick paddlers.
to get from Clark Island, Manitoba to Lake Saganaga, Manitoba paddlers completed nine different portages in one day on July 20,
As paddlers reached Marathon, Ontario where they were met with dense fog On Aug. 3. With visibility so low, Coast Guard and Royal Canadian Navy ships came out to help them navigate the waters of Lake Superior safely on their journey.
The trip along Lake Superior was for the most part, effortless as calm waters made for easy paddling.
At North Bay, Ontario on Aug. 21, the voyageurs were joined by four canoes containing 24 young Jesuits who were retracing the canoe route of 17-century missionaries.
The two groups camped together and exchanged stories of their journeys so far.
On Aug. 29, the canoeists reached Ottawa where Centennial Commissioner John Fisher greeted them and called them the harbingers of the centennial.
To get to the finish line, each canoe team had to make their way through the difficult Lachine Rapids. The Yukon team became swamped by the rapids and had to be rescued by the rescue boats.
Finally, on Sept. 4, 1967, Manitoba’s team crossed the finish line in Montreal after 507 hours, 21 minute and 51 seconds of racing.
British Columbia came in second with 509 hours 41 minutes, and Alberta at 511 hours 33 minutes.
Rounding out the bottom three teams were the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and, finally, Nova Scotia.
On their journey across Canada, the voyageurs averaged speeds of 10.5 kilometres an hour and 60 to 65 paddle strokes per minute.
Welcoming Manitoba and the rest of the paddlers was Secretary of State Judy LaMarsh, who had watched the paddlers leave Rocky Mountain House.
The Alberta team presented her with a bison cape as they arrived at the Montreal Expo.
They also carried a cowhide scroll that was signed by every mayor or reeve of every town along the route, and by Governor General Roland Michener and Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson.
As the paddlers arrived in Montreal, a large rock followed them.
The rock, with a plaque, was donated by the Town of Rocky Mountain House to Montreal to commemorate the Centennial Voyageur Canoe Pageant. It was put on display at the Expo 67 grounds.
After 104 days, 5,283 kilometres and over four million paddle strokes, the long race had come to an end.
Upon returning home, the Alberta team looked back on the entire trip as a highlight of their lives.
Captain John Nikel said,
“I think one of the most worthwhile aspects of the voyage was that we brought centennial to many small communities that would otherwise have had no large centennial event.”
When listing the biggest hazards faced on their journey, paddler Dave Maclure said that the bugs were terrible in Ontario, and the rapids were difficult in Alberta, along with 18-foot waves in the Georgian Bay.
In 2010, the Manitoba crew was inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame. The crew of the Northwest Territories team were inducted into the Northwest Territories Sport Hall of Fame in 2012.
Today, the race still holds the Guiness World Record for the longest canoeing race in history.
But what happened with the canoes once the teams arrived in Montreal?
I wish I could say they have all been preserved, but, sadly, that is not the case.
These canoes are part of our history and represent a monumental achievement by those who paddled them clear across the country.
But of the 10 canoes, three are long gone, faded to dust as they say.
The Saskatchewan and New Brunswick canoes have been preserved and protected. Saskatchewan’s is housed at the Western Development Museum in Saskatoon, while New Brunswick’s is at the Woodsman’s Museum in Boisetown.
The Yukon and Northwest Territories canoes are used in a canoe program at a British Columbia middle school.
Alberta’s canoe has been put on display at a ceremonial roadside shelter in Rocky Mountain House.
As for Manitoba’s winning canoe, it fell into neglect before it was acquired by the Fort Dauphin Museum, completely restored, and put on display.
And Ontario’s canoe found a home near Thunder Bay with the family of one of the paddlers, but it needs a lot of restoration.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, The Year Canada Lost Their Minds and Found Their Country, Sport North, Wikipedia, Paddling Magazine, Edmonton Journal, Flin Flon Reminder, Canada History, Montreal Star, Whitehorse Daily Star, Regina Leader-Post, Calgary Herald, Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Journal,