A new home for the story of the boats that shaped Canada

The waters have been troubled at some Ontario museums of late. This week, the provincial government abruptly and permanently closed the Ontario Science Centre because of dangers it said posed by the stability of the concrete used in some of the roof panels.

The fate of the building, which is nestled into a ravine in one of the city’s inner suburbs, remains uncertain. But the provincial government, led by Premier Doug Ford, had said the museum would be moved to a new, smaller building as part of the redevelopment of Ontario Place on the Lake Ontario shoreline. (Last month, I wrote about the reaction to the government’s decision to effectively hand over Ontario Place’s West Island to an Austrian company planning to build a spa.)

The closure of the science center sparked protests demanding its closure. reopening And repair like questions about the government’s risk analysis from the roof.

But, even more atypically, there were offers to help revive the building, which had become so neglected that visitors had to be bused to a back door instead of entering via the dramatic forest bridge. The architectural firm that designed the building in the 1960s has offered to restore it free. Geoffrey Hinton, one of the leading pioneers in artificial intelligence and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, promised 1 million Canadian dollars to the repairs.

Although its fate was never as uncertain as that of the Ontario Science Centre, the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario, ran into a roadblock four years ago with its plan for a new building. The canoe museum wanted to replace the former outboard motor factory and offices that had been its home since 1998.

In early 2020, the future of the project looked bright. A worldwide architecture competition had produced a building that would be placed in a hill next to the elevator locksa kind of ship lift, of the Trent-Severn Waterway, a canal, lake and river system connecting Lakes Huron and Ontario. It had signed a lease agreement with Parks Canada for the land and raised most of the CAD$65 million needed for the project.

But then a test showed that the land was contaminated by an industrial solvent that had been washed out of a former clock factory at the top of the hill. That detection was despite an earlier analysis that showed the site was clean.

All this happened as the pandemic broke out.

“Suddenly I had to close the museum and find that the location wasn’t feasible, it was devastating,” Carolyn Hyslop, the museum’s director, told me as I stood on the new wharf – which was, of course, full of canoes. “It was very clear that if we didn’t have a location to move this project to, we were going to lose it all.”

About $9 million had been spent on what was now nothing.

But together with Jeremy Ward, the museum’s curator, Ms. Hyslop found a site across the street from downtown Peterborough later that year. And in May, a year later than the original building’s scheduled opening date, the $45 million, 65,000-square-foot project was complete and fully funded.

As we walked through the new building, Mr. Ward that canoes are far from unique to Canada, which the exhibits emphasize. But they are well suited to Canada’s abundance of freshwater rivers and lakes. They were an essential means of transportation for indigenous people, as were kayaks (which the museum also owns and exhibits). The first Europeans to move to their traditional areas quickly adopted and relied on them.

Now they are closely associated with summer recreation in much of the country, especially in areas with lakeside cottages, camps, cabins or chalets.

“A Canadian is someone who knows how to make love in a canoe,” a 1973 magazine article quoted Pierre Berton as saying. Mr. Berton, an author and broadcaster, later denied making the joke but said he would be happy to take credit for it.

At the entrance to the museum’s exhibition space there is a canoe with a built-in gramophone.

The old museum was surrounded by dusty parking lots. The new building stands in stark contrast to a large bay known as Little Lake, which is ideal for paddling.

One of Mr Ward’s favorite boats, an Uqqurmiut kayak, was piloted by Aasivak Arnaquq-Baril, a member of the group that built it in 1945. Iqaluit, during the grand opening flotilla for the museum. He then carried it, soaking wet, into the building and to the exhibition space.

The new museum has a single, high exhibition hall, unlike the original in the office section of the outboard motor factory, which created a maze-like space on several levels. Bay windows now reveal the warehouse, where most of the collection of some 665 canoes and kayaks rest. In the former factory they were tucked away.

As before, the exhibit is a comprehensive overview of canoes, their place in indigenous communities in Canada, how they brought Europeans across Canada, their various construction forms, and their recreational and sporting uses. When I visited this month, not all exhibits were fully installed.

The new building has room to expand the collection. But like all museum curators, Mr. Ward regularly hears from people hoping to donate a valuable asset that the museum, in most cases, does not need or desire.

“I usually respond like this: ‘We already have three in our collection, so you better find an organization or a new owner who loves them as much as you do,’” he told me, surrounded by piles of canoes. “While we may not be able to take it with us or we may not find it interesting, you have to understand that for these people, this is a family member.”

This section was compiled by Vjosa Isai, a reporter and researcher based in Toronto.

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Ian Austen, born in Windsor, Ontario, educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has been writing about Canada for The New York Times for 20 years. Follow him on Bluesky

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