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January-February 2018

Dude, where’s my canoe?

Why theft of the iconic vessel is a uniquely Canadian crime

Kyle Carney

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Canada’s geography lends itself well to the canoe, our vast landscapes boasting an abundance of rivers, lakes, and coastlines. For more than 150 years, we have indulged in this mode of transportation, the vessel’s iconic shape ingrained in our national identity. Long and slender, wood or fibreglass, rounded at the bow and stern. Its image is even depicted on our currency: A glow-in-the-dark edition of the toonie, released last year, shows two paddlers underneath the aurora borealis. From the explorations of Samuel de Champlain and David Thompson, the mysterious death of artist Tom Thomson, or former PM Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s attempt at paddling to Cuba, the canoe has quietly glided through our shared heritage. In his book Canoe Country, Roy MacGregor writes: “If the canoe is not on the Canadian flag, it is most certainly to be found in the Canadian imagination.” Our love for this boat is even treated as a fetish, as argued in the introduction to Bruce Erickson’s Canoe Nation. “Today the canoe is almost entirely used for leisure and recreation,” he writes. “But the role of the canoe as a national fetish is both broader and longer lasting.” Indeed, we are so well-versed in canoeing that we’ve been known to brag about our ability to make love in one.

By extension of this rich and storied history, the theft of the canoe has become a distinctly Canadian crime. Sure, it happens elsewhere, but reports of stolen canoes in our country contain some rather captivating details. We can presume they are not so easily taken as bikes, being such large, oblong, and heavy objects. Unless you have a pickup truck or a trailer, the getaway can be quite difficult. Portaging is almost always out of the question. Ideally, you want a body of water nearby, something placid and accessible. The crime is not only challenging but dangerous, and it can even be fatal. In 2015, two Quebec men allegedly stole a canoe from a resort in the Laurentians. They launched it into the night waters of Blueberry Lake, but it overturned and one of the men died.

In a story from 2013, a 38-year-old man brazenly crossed the U.S. border in a stolen canoe, paddling the Niagara River with only a shovel. His destination was New York City, and a local Toronto paper reported that he had taken a bus from British Columbia to Ontario before committing his thievery. The suspect was arrested while exiting Fort Niagara State Park, on foot, at about 2 a.m.

In the same year, a break and enter at a seasonal residence was reported by the Ontario Provincial Police, near the town of Havelock. The owner notified authorities that a man had gained entry to the cottage and was living there without permission. When the cops arrived, they found the suspect’s clothing and a passport, but the man had fled the scene in a canoe. He was later spotted walking along a provincial highway.

The crime has no borders, spanning from coast to coast to coast. After stealing multiple canoes from his local Canadian Tire store in 2015, a 23-year-old Prince Edward Island man posted them for sale on Kijiji. He even managed to sell one, before police traced the advertisement. In 2016, a cedar canoe briefly disappeared in the township of Muskoka Lakes; it was intended as a display item for the Bala Community Centre. The Bala in Bloom festival committee issued a plea through local press, asking for its safe and swift return, promising that no questions would be asked. The old boat then reappeared on the lawn of the community centre, 10 days later. Another cedar strip canoe went missing in Edmonton at the end of August 2015. Handcrafted by the victim’s father, the boat was taken from atop his Volkswagen van. He plastered posters around his neighbourhood for the vanished vessel, and nearly a month later, a couple living nearby contacted him. The canoe was sitting in their backyard.

Considering all that it signifies in Canada, the canoe is pilfered with relative consistency. But the cultural importance of this boat is most likely lost on these thieves. Instead of a national icon, they treat the canoe as a means to an end, a novel way to escape from police, to enter the U.S. illegally, or to turn a quick profit.

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There is an element of the joyride in most reported cases of stolen canoes. They frequently go missing at night. Sometimes they are taken on a drunken whim, and abandoned shortly after serving their use. These types of crimes provide journalists with a wealth of puns: “Two suspected thieves found themselves up the Bow River without a paddle Tuesday,” read one article from the Calgary Sun. Other cases of canoe theft are completely targeted—locks and chains are cut, or seats are sawed. The boats featured in these crimes are usually collectable, like the Langford Prospector canoe, valued at $1,400, which went missing in 2014 in Muskoka’s Lake of Bays township. The most unfortunate of these offences are the ones reported at schools or camps, where children are the ultimate victims. Last year, at the end of May, a canoe was stolen from a summer camp for foster kids near Yellowknife, and four years ago, a red, 17-foot-long boat suspiciously vanished from Wellington County’s Erin District High School, in eastern Ontario.

It’s not only criminals who snatch canoes from the unsuspecting. In 2014, house-boaters of the Yellowknife Bay region were surprised to find their canoes had been seized by city workers. Two years prior, the city had implemented a $200 docking fee, and boats without government-issued tags were impounded one spring afternoon. And this wasn’t the first time that bureaucracy had thwarted canoeists: Upon returning home from vacation, a resident of a Chatham, Ont., suburb found that his boat had been taken from underneath his back deck. When he reported the crime to police, they advised him the canoe had already been recovered and was being held at a towing site. In order to claim it, the victim was required to pay more than $300 in service fees.

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Stories like these prompt us to wonder if the canoe really belongs to anyone, much less Canadians. Before it was adopted by European settlers, during the fur trade of the 17th century, the kenu was widely used by the North American Indigenous peoples. For as long as there have been canoes, there have been canoe thieves. At the end of an expedition in 1806, the American adventurers Lewis and Clark stole a canoe from the Clatsop tribe out of what they called “necessity.” More than 200 years later, in 2011, a replica of the boat was returned to the Chinook Indian Nation by the descendants of William Clark. In the song “How to Steal A Canoe,” Indigenous writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson recites lyrics about reclaiming an ancestral birch canoe from a museum where it was being held on display. With the bottom filled with rocks, the artifact is then returned to a river and set free.

When we launch one on the water, we seek the inherent freedoms of the canoe. But the boat comes burdened with a tangled past. It’s not ours by invention, yet we claim it through tradition. Its theft questions our notions of property. Perhaps it transcends ownership, and belongs instead to everyone in Canada. This might be the reason why so many are stolen, year after year. In fact, many kayaks suffer a similar fate. Of course, sharing and taking are two entirely different things, as one resident of Port McNeill, B.C., came to learn. In a letter to the editor of the North Island Gazette, he admitted to freely lending his canoe to neighbours and visitors of the Keogh Lake region, but when he came to claim it from them before the winter, he found the boat was gone.

We may be enamoured with it, and no doubt it’s entrenched in our history, but Canadians cannot claim the canoe. Our national romance with this boat is as flawed as our recent sesquicentennial. It is merely another patriotic appropriation. And yet, so much of our identity is derived from this object, that we must continue to cherish it, always. With buoyancy, it contains our multitudes.

In Canada, the canoe is a sacred thing; to paddle one unlawfully seems like a crime against our culture.

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