Traditional Uses of Birch Bark in Canada

17 Jun 2016

The bark of birch trees was used for much more than building canoes.

Generations of First Nations peoples, Canada’s earliest European settlers, and voyageurs relied on the use of birch bark for building canoes to traverse Canada’s streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes. The birch bark canoe remains an iconic artifact in Canadian history that was shaped by the rugged wilderness of our countryside and as the principal means of water transportation.

This lightweight yet strong, pliable, and impervious bark from birch trees native to Ontario was the perfect material to build canoes to connect disparate and distant communities to each other to facilitate trade and commerce, promote communication and cultural exchange, and to explore the province’s isolated, impassable landscape.

In addition to canoes, birch bark proved its worth for many other uses including bowls and baskets for cooking, storing, and transporting food, as well as a solid substance to write on or as a canvas on which to paint prior to the mass production of paper and its related products. It could be wrought into twine, rope, and mats. As a construction resource, birch bark (and tree bark in general) was of prime importance to First Nations tribes across Canada.

The Art and Science of Birch Bark Construction

Algonquin First Nations peoples used birch bark to cover their wigwams to stay warm and dry, and ‘birch-bark biting’ was the practice of perforating paper-thin birch bark in the fabrication of containers, artistic designs, and pictographic scrolls the Ojibwa, Cree, and other Algonquin First Nations people once relied on. Birch-bark biting was especially helpful for quillwork to decorate clothing and moccasins, and items such as drums, boxes, pipes and tipis and wigwams. 

Some tribes carried their children in portable cradles made of birch bark and buried their dead in coffins made from bark. Other tribes used the leaves and bark of white birch trees to heal various skin-related conditions, while hunters would make birch bark “megaphones” to try to imitate the sound of female moose in an attempt to lure male moose close enough to kill.

Although it may be the birch bark canoe’s cultural legacy that most Canadians identify with and are intrigued by because it represents traditional engineering, science, art, culture, and education, it’s important to note that it is birch bark as a material that helped build the country we live in today.