The Man in a Canoe

What the covered wagon has been to the United States, this and more the canoe has been to Canada – a symbol of the westward march of our civilization, a symbol of the spirit and courage of a great racial journey.

But the story of the canoe is infinitely longer than the story of the covered wagon, beginning from the Indians in prehistoric times and continuing down to our own day.

The story of the canoe is Canada’s story, because Canada is a gigantic waterway, a complex system of lakes and rivers stretching from the Atlantic to the Rockies…

In the canoe’s wake the economy and the culture of Canada appeared. Starting from this walled city of Quebec, paddling up the St. Lawrence and a thousand other rivers, men in canoes have created Canada.

There is one man in a canoe that I have especially in mind today – Tom Thomson. Of Thomson it may literally be said that he lived and worked and died in a canoe in Canada’s north country. The very waters in which he drowned are known as Canoe Lake.

But it is more important that he alone was able to express the feelings, the deep faith in nature, the wild, mute emotions of all the strong men in canoes who created this country. It is more important that Tom Thomson painted Canada not only as it looked to him but as it must have looked to his kind of man from the beginning. Thomson’s importance as an artist received international recognition, but his place in the history of North America has, I believe, not yet been truly seen.


Thomson, like Thoreau, lived much alone and yet was not lonely. In the wilderness of the Algonquin Park country, he was as completely at home, as calmly content as his Indian predecessors. All his life he was happiest when living as those predecessors had lived, as the voyageurs had lived. He was a great woodsman, a great woodsman who at last was able to express the emotions which make a man a woodsman. He was a man in a canoe who succeeded in explaining to us something of the secret of the countless men in canoes, something of the story they never told through the long centuries that they moved silently up and down the waterways of our continent.


It has always seemed to me memorable that Thomson lost his life in the beloved waters of Canoe Lake in 1917 only a few short months after so many other Canadians had given their lives thousands of miles away at Vimy Ridge and had by their victory proved their nation’s spirit to the world.

Thomson, painting all that spring of 1917 in Algonquin Park, painting feverishly as though he knew the light would fade soon for him, Thomson was saying for the first time and for all time what those other Canadians, so far away, were dying for.

The men in canoes, the men alone but not lonely, the Indians first and then the French and those who came later, these are the men who slowly, over the centuries, built Canada. They had something more in their hearts than money from furs. One of these men, named Thomson, has been able to tell us what they had in their hearts.

Tom Thomson belongs with Walt Whitman as a prophet of this continent. There were American canoes and American woodsmen, too. Thomson has spoken for them as well, even as Whitman sang of and for all North Americans.

Source: Hon. Roy Atherton, "The Man In A Canoe," Canadian Art, May 30, 1947. Notes: Hon. Ray Atherton, “The Man in a Canoe”, [[italics]]Canadian Art[[/]], Christmas-New Year 1947-48 Vol. V (2), 57-58. Atherton was US Ambassador to Canada. This article is an excerpt of his address to American Museums Association conference in Quebec, May 30, 1947

Return to parent page