Justin Trudeau reflects on his lifelong love affair with the canoe

Justin Trudeau paddles his canoe

This article was originally published in the May 2012 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

Growing up, my brothers and I spent a bit of our summer vacation time at camps, and a bit travelling—but mainly we were at cottages. And those cottages had canoes. Together they defined our summers.

The first cottage I remember was the prime minister’s official summer residence, at Harrington Lake in the Gatineau Hills. Maybe my most indelible canoe memory from that cottage was one of the rites of passage for the Trudeau boys: When we hit five or six years old, our dad would put us into the canoe and we’d shoot the rapids on the stream that went down into Meech Lake. There’s a little dam there, and in the spring they’d open the dam, and there would be a huge V and a standing wave. With much trepidation, we’d sit in the front and go down the drop. I look back on it now and laugh, because my father was sterning, and there was nothing I could do from the bow to aim it right—but it was very, very important for us to do it. To get into the bow of a canoe with my father for the first time, to be the bowman for the first time, and to go down this big, scary rapid.

When my father really wanted to get away from the security guards and the trappings of political life, we’d go to our family cottage in the Laurentians, near Morin-Heights, where we still go now. My father found the land a long time ago, when, as a young man, he was riding around the Laurentian Hills on a motorcycle. He built a little Pan-Abode cottage there, a simple log cabin with a trap door in the floor that led down to the basement space and cold storage. We called it “the house with the hole in the floor,” to distinguish it from Harrington Lake. The lake itself is small, and has never ever had motorboats on it. We had a sailboat and windsurfers at various times, but the hills around the lake create shifting winds. Canoe was the only way to get around.

What kinds of canoes did we have? My dad had a little cedarstrip-and-canvas canoe that he’d owned for years. It was the same one that he used, when he was much younger, to paddle from Montreal to James Bay. We had a Prospector as well, which we used on some little rapids. We even had a birchbark canoe, which we’ve since donated to the Canadian Canoe Museum. When my brother, Alexandre, got married, the ceremony was at our cottage. My wife, Sophie, and I gave him a beautiful cedarstrip canoe without the canvas, with the natural wood showing.

We still go to my dad’s land regularly; when we moved to Montreal in ’84 and my father retired, we replaced the Pan-Abode with a slightly larger cottage. And every year I still try to get out for at least a few days or so in the summer and take a canoe trip. Recently Alexandre and I have been doing trips on rivers in Quebec: the Ignace, the Noire, and a few others.

One of the few pieces of art that I have on Parliament Hill is a painting in my office that Sophie commissioned from an artist friend of hers, based on a photo of a canoe sitting beside a cottage dock. The canoe in the painting isn’t my father’s original cedarstrip, though. That one is still up at our cottage in the Laurentians. My dad named it Ça ira. Which means, in this case, “It’ll get there.”