Rupert's House Canoe Factory

The legendary canoe factory at Rupert's House.  

It began making fur-brigade canoes and its builders were always aboriginal. The factory was owned by the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) and operated with full-time Cree builders, constructing birchbark and wood-canvas canoes for close to a century, if not more.  It grew to supply canoes for more than just Company use, but for sale to aboriginals along the Hudson Bay coast and inland in the James Bay region of northern Quebec. And it provided a degree of self-sufficiency for the remote region and annual employment where almost none existed.

In 1954, a year for which figures are available, the factory built four wood-canvas models: 16-foot Rupert, 18-foot Roberval, 20-foot Rupert and 23-foot Rupert.  Between the early 1920s and 1954, more than 1,300 wood-canvas canoes were crafted. 

Photo: Cree builders working in Rupert House canoe factory, 1966.

Square stern (foreground) ready for canvassing.

Photo: Cree builders working in Rupert House canoe factory. Tacking the planking. Builder in blue shirt is pulling tacks from his mouth. 1966

Tacking the planking. Builder in blue shirt is pulling tacks from his mouth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The factory, though less formal in operation, began in the nineteenth century building birchbark canoes for brigade use. The exact date is not known. It was a move taken out of necessity as the number of inland posts supplied out of Rupert grew in number. York boats used on the west side of the Bay were unsuitable for the steeper rivers on the east side. Large 30-foot birchbark canoes, a size not used by the Cree, were adopted to move freight back and forth.

In 1902, the first wood-canvas canoe was constructed. Apparently it was the first known canvas canoe in the James Bay region. It was constructed in a homegrown fashion as the Cree innovated without the use of a mold, having only accounts from those who had seen one in the south. They used modified birchbark-canoe-style techniques, so instead of tacks and bolts, bindings and fastenings were made from spruce roots. Over the next 18 years both canvas and birchbark canoes were built. 

In 1920, the factory went through a revolution. A canoe-building mold (for shaping the hull during construction), its first one, was brought from Edmonton. But the design was not ideal for local conditions, where canoes travel large rivers with demanding portages and on the open water of Hudson Bay. So two new molds were built with improved designs. Those basic designs endured as the foundation for future molds. The factory was reorganized for more efficient operation. The 30-foot brigade canoes were discontinued and replaced with 23-foot models that were better suited for portaging.  As outboard motors became affordable square sterns were added. By the 1950s, square sterns were on most canoes. 

Despite having its own canoe factory, the HBC did not use Rupert canoes outside of the James Bay region. Shipping them was too expensive. Instead, Chestnuts were the main brand at other stores in both freight and paddling canoes.

The factory survived because it produced a canoe that not only suited local conditions, but was produced at a cost more reasonable than importing canoes from the south.  By the 1970s, the cost of shipping via the new roads entering James Bay and the purchase price and lower maintenance cost for boats constructed of newer boat-building materials were changing the economics. 

The band council took over the factory in the early 1970s, but by 1977 it ran out of the funds to keep it going. The closing of the factory ended the link to the brigades.

Photo: Cree builders working in Rupert House canoe factory, 1966.

Photos: Heb Evans, 1966

Photo: Rupert House canoe factory, 1966.n 1966, the factory had two buildings. This one no longer stands today.

In 1966, the factory had two buildings. This one no longer stands today.

Memories from Childhood

   by Bill Namagoose

The factory was located beside the HBC store along the river and was a center of activity and full of life. After the work was over the guys would have checker tournaments beside the canoe racks and under the canoes, if it rained.

When I returned from school in 1977 at age 21 to Waskaganish, I needed a canoe to go fishing and hunting with. A non-native canoeist who came down the Rupert from Mistissini gave me his canoe, which he had wrapped around a rock. The canoe, in two pieces, was held together with two pieces of small spruce trees tied on top. He had patched the canvas and was still able to get to Waskaganish. I spent most of my summer repairing the canoe at the canoe factory with the help of the workers. I put fiberglass on it and it worked great. It lasted several years until a log went through it during a fall windstorm when the high tide exceeded normal.

Sources: A Homeland for the Cree by Richard Salisbury, Beaver magazine, The Rupert That Was by Heb Evans, Bill Namagoose

Rupert Canoe Brigade

From Rupert's House canoe brigades supplied inland posts at Waswanipi, Mistassini, Nemiscau, Senneterre and Neoskweskau.

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