In Conversation with Chuck Commanda, Birchbark Canoe Builder

Delighted to be continuing our conversations with National Council members with an episode of “In Conversation” with Tłı̨chǫ negotiator and knowledge keeper, Dr. John B. Zoe, who is truly not only one of Canada’s great community leaders but also a wonderful storyteller.

The idea of these recorded conversations is to bring the wisdom and perspectives of our National Council to museum members and friends, particularly during these COVID times. We consult this august group regularly on matters pertaining to the museum and its future but we thought that there was so much there in terms of knowledge and stories that we should make an effort to share!

John B. and I first met in the 1990s when he was working with Northwest Territorial Subarctic Archaeologist Tom Andrews on the Įdaà Trail, an ancient trail linking Great Slave Lake and Great Bear Lake. Together, with the creative staff at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, they produced “Lessons from the Land,” an amazing website full of Tlicho culture, language and traditions.


John B. Zoe

“[Canoe] means life – without it, you wouldn’t have what you have…”

In this far-reaching conversation, we not only learn about John B’s origins—how he evolved from being a stationary engineer looking after the boilers at Chief Jimmy Bruneau school in Rae-Edzo (Behchokǫ̀, since 2005), his hometown, to becoming the principal voice of his people in negotiations with the federal government that led to the creation of the Tłı̨chǫ Government—all the way through to how canoes were and are integrated into every aspect of Tłı̨chǫ life, politics and identity.

John B. and I spoke by Zoom from his home in Behchokǫ̀ on November 24th, 2020. Check out the conversation here:

Referenced in this episode:


James Raffan Director of External Relations

James Raffan

James has been a part of the museum since its inception, having held a number of roles including, most recently, the Director of Development and Director Emeritus. He served as the Executive Director from 2008 to 2014, the Curator in 2007, and worked on the first education program in 1999. This work stemmed from his volunteer involvement on the museum’s Education Advisory Committee in the 1990s, which he undertook as a professor at Queen’s University in the Faculty of Education. He held a number of positions with Queen’s from 1982 to 1999 and is also a graduate of the University. James holds a Doctor of Philosophy, Master of Education, Bachelor of Education and Bachelor of Science. He is a celebrated author of numerous books including, Ice Walker: A Polar Bear’s Journey Through the Fragile Arctic, Circling the Midnight Sun: Culture and Change in the invisible Arctic, and the national bestsellers Emperor of the North: Sir George Simpson and the Remarkable Story of the Hudson’s Bay Company and Deep Waters: Courage, Character and the Canoeing Tragedy of Lake Timiskaming. James has been honoured with numerous recognitions and awards, including the Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General of Canada, Honourary Doctor of Laws from the University of Guelph, and a number of others related to his considerable work as a writer and outdoorsman. Years spent as a camper and staff member at Camp Kandalore from 1959 to 1973 inspired James’ lifelong interest in the collection.