Disembarking at Yukon College

Halin de Repentigny’s canoe has a new home.

On November 16 at 10 a.m., the 30-foot long by six-foot wide canoe was set to be suspended near the cafeteria at Yukon College in Whitehorse.

This ended de Repentigny’s year-long search for a permanent place for this canoe, since it was kept at the Copper Moon Gallery under a shed roof.

“I’m excited,” says Repentigny a week before the opening. “It is going to ease my mind – I know that it is there to stay. At Copper Moon I was worried about it, if a big storm come and wind break it…”

De Repentigny built the boat for the 2010 Olympic Games, but complications prevented it from making the trip to Vancouver and it landed at the local Whitehorse gallery.

In addition, the logistics of finding a home for a boat of its size – which according to de Repentigny can carry about 10,000 lbs and 15 people – has been “quite complicated.”

Living in Whitehorse this winter with his wife, who is attending Yukon College, inspired him to scope out the prospect of installing it at the school.

“I thought, what the hell, I think it is going to look very good here,” says de Repentigny.

De Repentigny, born in Montreal in 1959, started as an artist at six years old with watercolour paintings.

At 15 he made his first public exhibit with oil and canvas.

His work interprets the stories of people, nature and history.

Best known for his paintings, (which appear in most bars in Dawson and have been shown internationally and throughout Canada,) de Repentigny is a self-trained craftsman.

Passionate about Native technology, he has crafted nearly 20 birch bark and skin kayaks and canoes.

When de Repentigny trapped and lived in the Yukon bush, soon after he arrived in Dawson from Quebec’s Gaspé region 1981, he worked on basic canoe-construction skills that had been shown to him while he was living in his home province.

He worked on perfecting the process for 17 years. It wasn’t until he discovered the designs of artist/journalist Tappan Adney, who studied North American canoe construction in the early 19th century, through a visitor carrying a copy of Adney’s book Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America in Dawson, that de Repentigny found the “missing part.”

“I was really impressed by [the book] and I asked him where he find it – they were hard to find,” de Repentigny says. “I actually found it in Inuvik. I went to the old library there and they had one, all dusty.”

De Repentigny built a similar canoe to the one hung in the college and took it down the Peel River. In the process, the boat was nearly destroyed.

“At the end, I decided I really wanted to build another one without making a trip, keep it in good shape and just again, to remember that we have those canoes here in Canada – in the Yukon part.”

The canoe was constructed three years ago beside the Yukon River in Dawson. De Repentigny used the water to help him sew the bark and keep the roots [used for sewing] moist and pliable. It took two months to complete.

“I had some people helping me sewing it, but traditionally a canoe was built probably within a week if there was several people doing it,” says.

For the design, De Repentigny chose a mix between the biggest freighter canoes, and a smaller, narrower boat built for speed. This design de Repentigny calls an “express-freighter.”

The inside of the canoe – the ribs and floor – are made of white cedar from Quebec and Ontario. De Repentigny says he wanted it to be authentic, so he cut the five logs himself and had the wood shipped by truck to the Yukon. The rest of the materials – the bark and the roots – are from different areas of the Yukon.

Brightly painted designs on the sides of the canoe reflect traditions of paddlers.

“The colours were chosen to make people happy,” says de Repentigny. “Before iPods, during a long trip on the river, to keep the rhythm [the paddlers] would sing.”

For de Repentigny, the canoe is a symbol and interpretation of history and culture. Paddlers’ songs are among the many lesser-known details of Canadian history that de Repentigny passionately stresses are integral to our national identity.

With the canoe, he wanted to make a statement about the partnership of races in Canadian culture – French, English, Métis and First Nations. For example, he explains, canoe companies run by both the French and English used the designs of the First Nations.

At the college, de Repentigny hopes the canoe will help educate people on Canadian history and culture.

In addition, it a rarity – de Repentigny boasts that his canoe is among only a handful in the world.

“It’s kind of neat to have it in Whitehorse,” he says.

“I am quite happy the college is taking it. It’s a nice piece of culture and it should be protected.”

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