Skip to content

‘You’ve got to be prepared’: former chief constructs birch bark canoe

David Johnny Sr. is reclaiming self-sufficiency and traditional craftsmanship
The 16-foot birch bark canoe David Johnny Sr. built from scratch using locally foraged birch, spruce and bear grease. Johnny said the process of building the canoe brought back memories of his childhood living off the land. (Submitted)

David Johnny Sr. spent two months this winter constructing a birch bark canoe, a process that recalled his childhood living off the land.

“It turned out good, a lot of stuff came back to me — memories from way back when. It brings out all the stuff that you knew before,” Johnny said.

Johnny is the former White River First Nation chief and a traditional knowledge-keeper living in Beaver Creek. He built the 16-foot canoe from scratch using locally foraged birch, spruce and bear grease.

He began the canoe project as a method of reclaiming self-sufficiency during the pandemic.

“My dad always said, ‘You’ve got to be prepared, you’ve got to know that history, because something is going to come along some day and it’s going to disrupt everything,’” Johnny said.

The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdown reinforced the importance of living off the land, he explained.

“You know how to survive off the land, because when the hard times come … your kids and grandkids are going to survive,” Johnny said.

Last year, Johnny built a similar birch bark canoe as part of a community project. It had a rounded bottom, which is more prevalent down south and different from traditional White River canoes. He decided to try a second canoe which would more closely mimic local tradition.

Johnny enlisted his grandchildren to learn the process of building the canoe the way his father had. He cut the frame from birch and spruce, dried it, and sewed the birch exterior. Then he applied bear grease to the seams. The canoe was completed in December after about two months of work.

“I really took my time on it, to make sure I didn’t have to go back and take it apart,” he said.

“It was a good project. You never see that around here anymore for a long time; nobody makes them.”

Johnny is a well-established teacher of traditional knowledge. He has hosted hunting, fishing, trapping and skinning camps for younger generations since the 1980s.

David Johnny Sr., former White River First Nation chief and a traditional knowledge-keeper living in Beaver Creek, spent two months this winter constructing a birch bark canoe. (Submitted)

“When me and my wife started it back then, we wanted all the little kids to experience these things,” he said.

Johnny grew up living off the land — his family migrating between cabins on a trapline near the Alaska border in the 1950s.

“I think we were one of the last families in this area to come out of the bush, and everything we used in the bush my dad made: birch bark boats, canvas canoes, your bowl, your spoon, everything,” he said.

“I’d sit there and watch him, and that’s where I learned.”

Johnny was seven or eight years old when he and his brother were taken to the residential school in Lower Post, B.C. While at the residential school, he spent several months at a time separated from his family.

He explained that the COVID-19 lockdown has been retraumatizing for many residential school survivors in the Yukon, further necessitating a shift to traditional practices.

“You go back, you’re a residential school survivor, you don’t like being tied down to one spot and being told what to do,” Johnny said.

“Going through all this again … locking everybody in the house, recreating the residential schools. That’s why we have got to try and get this cultural stuff going, got to keep busy,” he said.

The pandemic has also inspired local enthusiasm for living off the land, and Johnny has seen a higher-than-usual number of people interested in traditional teachings.

“Now, we have non-Native people wanting to know how you survive in the bush,” Johnny said.

“We’ve become too lax, so it’s good to learn this traditional stuff if something happens; kids should be taught how to make canvas canoes and birch bark canoes.”

Johnny endeavours to propel a culture of self-sufficiency in his community. Beaver Creek is located about 450 kilometres from Whitehorse and 42 km from the Alaska border.

“You have to be prepared, in case you can’t drive down to Whitehorse to buy what you need,” he said.

“Nowadays, we’re spoiled. When you need something, you run down to Canadian Tire. When you live in the bush, you have all the material around you. It’s there, all you need is a little sweat.

“A lot of stuff comes back to you, when you start thinking about how things were before.”

Johnny has received some interest from potential purchasers about the birch bark canoe.

“With stuff like that, you don’t know how you’re going to put a price to it … if you have that knowledge, and build something like that, it’s really hard to put a price on anything.”

For his next project, Johnny is considering building a moose skin boat and another birch bark canoe. This time, he plans to record his process.

“There’s stuff you can teach, and it’s all there, you just have to get your hands dirty.”

Contact Gabrielle Plonka at