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Wordsleuth (2008, vol. 5, 4): All in the Same Boat

Katherine Barber
(Language Update, Volume 5, Number 3, 2008, page 41)

In a country whose motto is "From Sea to Sea," we have many boats, but the quintessential Canadian watercraft is the canoe. Ironically, the word itself is not of Canadian origin: it derives from an aboriginal language of the Caribbean. It’s probably safe to say that our country wouldn’t exist without canoes, so it’s not surprising that we have many different names for them. In Quebec English, the delightful word rabaska is used for what is also known as a north canoe. Rabaska is an alteration of Athabaska, since these canoes were used for the fur trade in the area northwest of Lake Superior. But my favourite is the bastard canoe, so called because it was halfway between the biggest canoe (the enormous 12-metre-long canot du maître or Montreal canoe) and the smallest, and could be used on lakes or rivers. But no doubt the voyageurs lugging the two tons of freight it contained over a portage found its moniker particularly appropriate. Not the type of canoe you’d need if you had to get something to someone in a hurry. For that, there were the small, light express canoes, the Purolator of the fur trade. But "express" certainly didn’t mean overnight delivery: it took over a month to paddle from Montréal to the Lakehead.

Then again, life was at a slower pace: Jean-Baptiste Lagimodière, travelling flat out (much of it by snowshoe), took five months to take "urgent" dispatches from the Red River Colony in 1815 to Lord Selkirk in Montréal. If only he’d had e-mail!

"A Canadian," Pierre Berton famously said, "is someone who knows how to make love in a canoe." Presumably he wasn’t thinking about those Montreal canoes! But if you haven’t mastered that particular skill, we have other less tippy boats that you can try. The broad, flat-bottomed, aluminum herring skiffs or the sturdy tugboats for gathering logs called log broncs in B.C., a province that has the distinction of using the word fishboat in preference to the more common fishing boat. The high-prowed Cape Islander of Nova Scotia, named after Cape Sable Island, where it was first built in 1905. The decked whaleboat equipped with both sail and motor used in the eastern Arctic, named after Peterhead in Scotland. Or the large, open, flat-bottomed Inuit boat called an umiak, made by stretching hides over a wooden or whalebone frame. Even in landlocked Winnipeg you can find a nice commodious York boat at the museum, one of the large shallow-draft cargo boats used for transporting furs and trade goods through Lake Winnipeg up to York factory on Hudson Bay. If you want to test the theory that there is absolutely nothing half so much worth doing as messing about in boats, in Canada, the possibilities are almost endless.