The story of how history changed at Quetico

If a picture is a worth a thousand words, how much is a painting worth? Especially one crafted by treasured Canadian artist Paul Kane, whose journeys across Canada produced some of the iconic sketches and paintings in Canadian history.

Priceless? Perhaps.

At least in terms of how it reflects early Canadian cultural heritage.


Paul Kane exhibit

An upcoming exhibit (from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto) at Quetico Provincial Park is set to showcase the work of the Irish-born artist and explorer, and reveal a quirky story behind one of his iconic paintings, the French River Rapids.

Kane was best known for recording daily life in the Canadian Northwest before European settlement.  Through his artwork, he beautifully captured Aboriginal culture during his travels by canoe from 1845 to 1848.

On May 30, in 1846, he was provided passage by Sir George Simpson in a fur brigade of the Hudson’s Bay Company and made this entry in his journal at the time.

“We made an early start, reaching the “French Portage” by breakfast-time. Here we lightened the canoes of the principal part of the baggage, and carried across the portage a distance of three miles, in order that we might be able to send the canoes round by the river, which had now become very shallow, to meet us at the further end of the portage. We camped this evening at a small lake called Sturgeon Lake, having come a distance of forty-eight miles, passing “French Portage,” and “Portage des Morts.”

Paul Kane, Wanderings of an Artist

Detective work

For years afterward, it was thought that Kane had painted the French River Rapids at the French River at Georgian Bay on Lake Huron, however, a bit of detective work by the ROM’s Assistant Curator of Ethnology, Ken Lister, turned that story upside down.

In 2006, Lister discovered Kane created the painting at the east end of the French Portage at Quetico, not Georgian Bay.

Lister confirmed the setting by pouring over Kane’s journals and sketches and visiting Quetico himself. He was able to locate the exact site of the painting, which can be seen today where Highway 11 crosses the French River.

Although it had grown over significantly since 1846, the location of the painting was verified by Lister, who managed to push his way through the bush.

Historic place

“It [was] amazing to sit there on the rock that Kane sat on to make this particular sketch,” Lister said in a ROM video.

Quetico’s librarian Andrea Allison was with Lister the day he made the discovery.

“I remember the day very well,” says Allison. “Ken Lister is a very quiet person and after he realized the connection with Quetico, he came to us and said, ‘This is big. This is really big.’ I feel it’s an interesting piece of art history detective work that Ken Lister undertook to find the actual location of some of these paintings and drawings.”

“What this does is bring that particular landscape back into Canadian history so that it now becomes part of our cultural heritage,” says Lister.

The exhibit is set to open at Quetico May 16th, 2015.

This is just one of the ‘Cool Things’ in Quetico.

To discover the rest, watch our ‘Cool Things in Quetico’ video.