A New Home for the Story of the Boats That Shaped Canada - The World News

A New Home for the Story of the Boats That Shaped Canada

Waters have been choppy recently for some of Ontario’s museums. This week, the provincial government abruptly, and permanently, closed the Ontario Science Centre over what it said were dangers posed by the stability of the concrete used in some of its roof panels.

The fate of the building, which is integrated into a ravine in one of the city’s inner suburbs, remains uncertain. But the provincial government, led by Premier Doug Ford, had said that the museum was being moved to a new, smaller building as part of its redevelopment of Ontario Place on the Lake Ontario shoreline. (Last month, I wrote about the backlash to the government’s decision to effectively turn over the West Island of Ontario Place to an Austrian company that plans to build a spa.)

The science center’s closing led to protests demanding its reopening and repair as well as questions about the government’s risk analysis of the roof.

But, more atypically, there were offers to assist in reviving the building, which had been neglected to the point where visitors had to be shuttled by bus to a back door rather than enter through its dramatic woodland bridge. The architectural firm that designed the building during the 1960s has offered to restore it free of charge. Geoffrey Hinton, one of the leading pioneers of artificial intelligence and a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, pledged 1 million Canadian dollars toward the repairs.

While its fate was never quite as uncertain as that of the Ontario Science Centre, four years ago the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario, slammed into a roadblock with its plan for a new building. The canoe museum wanted to replace the former outboard motor factory and offices that had been its home since 1998.

In early 2020, the project’s future was bright. A global architectural competition had produced a building that would be tucked into a hillside next to the lift locks, a kind of boat elevator, of the Trent-Severn Waterway, a canal, lake and river system linking Lakes Huron and Ontario. It had secured a lease with Parks Canada for the land and had raised most of the 65 million Canadian dollars needed for the project.

But then, a test found that the land was contaminated by an industrial solvent that had leached down from a former clock factory at the top of the hill. That detection was despite an earlier analysis that showed the site was clean.

All this happened as the pandemic hit.

“All of a sudden having to close the museum and finding out that the site was not feasible, it was devastating,” Carolyn Hyslop, the museum’s executive director, told me while standing on its new dock — which was naturally teeming with canoes. “It was really clear that if we didn’t have a site to move this project to, we would lose it all together.”

About 9 million dollars had been spent on what was now nothing.

But along with Jeremy Ward, the museum’s curator, Ms. Hyslop did find a site later that year across from downtown Peterborough. And in May, a year later than the planned opening date of the original building, the $45 million, 65,000-square-foot project was ready and fully funded.

As we walked through the new building, Mr. Ward emphasized that canoes are far from unique to Canada, which the exhibits highlight. But they are well suited to Canada’s abundance of freshwater rivers and lakes. They were a vital form of transportation for Indigenous people, as were kayaks (which the museum also holds and displays). The first Europeans who moved into their traditional lands soon adopted and relied on them, too.

Now they are closely associated with summer recreation in much of the country, particularly areas with lakeside cottages, camps, cabins or chalets.

“A Canadian is somebody who knows how to make love in a canoe,” a 1973 magazine article quoted Pierre Berton as saying. Mr. Berton, an author and broadcaster, later denied making the quip but said he would gladly take credit for it.

Hanging at the entrance to the museum’s exhibition hall is a canoe with a built-in gramophone.

The old museum was surrounded by dusty parking lots. The new building, in stark contrast, sits in a large bay known as Little Lake, which is ideally suited for paddling.

One of Mr. Ward’s favorite boats, a Uqqurmiut kayak, was paddled by Aasivak Arnaquq-Baril, a member of the group that built it in Iqaluit, during the grand opening flotilla for the museum. He then carried it dripping wet into the building and up to its exhibition space.

The new museum has a single, high-ceilinged exhibition hall unlike the original in the office portion of the outboard motor plant, which created a mazelike space on several levels. Picture windows now show off its warehouse, where most of the collection of about 665 canoes and kayaks rests. In the former factory, they were hidden away.

As before, the exhibition is a comprehensive overview of canoes, their place in Indigenous communities in Canada, how they brought Europeans around Canada, their varying forms of construction and their recreational and sporting uses. When I visited this month, not all of the exhibitions were fully installed.

There is room in the new building to expand the collection. But like all museum curators, Mr. Ward regularly hears from people hoping to donate a prized possession that, in most cases, the museum neither needs nor desires.

“I usually respond like this: ‘We already have three of these in our collection, so you’re better off to find an organization or a new owner who will love it as much as you do,’” he told me, surrounded by stacks of canoes. “While we may not be able to take it or may think it’s not interesting, you do have to be understanding that, to these people, this is a member of the family.”

This section was compiled by Vjosa Isai, a reporter and researcher based in Toronto.

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A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for two decades. Follow him on Bluesky at @ianausten.bsky.social

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