Saltwater Freshwater’s community canoe-building projects allow significant cultural knowledge to be transferred between generations, as well as teaching Aboriginal boys and young men technical, leadership and life skills.

These projects have even wider, longer-term benefits. By engaging with the next generation via a meaningful culturally-specific experience, they help address and reverse serious issues of low participation and retention rates for young Aboriginal people in school, particularly among boys.

Canoe-building has a special significance among Aboriginal men. As well as the tangible process itself, it is a team enterprise which acts as a catalyst for male mentors to pass on guidance to young men.

“Building a canoe is men’s business,” said Uncle Fred Kelly, a Dunghutti Elder who has mentored at several past Saltwater Freshwater canoe projects in the Mid North Coast. “Traditionally it's been a way of using natural renewable material to be able to travel across water. It’s also a way for Elders to work with young men and pass on that knowledge. That way they grow their relationships and build a lot of trust.

“On the face of it, it may seem that you’re working on a watercraft vessel with these boys – but you’re actually talking about a lot of other things while you're undertaking the project. Plus, it's a group effort – you wouldn't be able to build one yourself. So it teaches these boys how to work as a team and about the responsibilities that come with being a man.”

“Aboriginal boys who are experiencing problems need to be able to practice their culture, spend time with Elders and take part in cultural practices that are fun. Building a canoe is a significant part of that.”

Speaking about the actual building process, he added: “You take bark from a tree – culturally there is a specific way of doing that and it's actually a very spiritual experience. Then there’s a certain way that the bark needs to be prepared and eventually it’s put into the water. The young men get a really big thrill from being able to paddle that canoe.

“You can never underestimate the excitement of hearing them say ‘Is that really going to float?’ and and then seeing their reactions when it does.”

What do people say?

“Aboriginal boys who are experiencing problems need to be able to practice their culture, spend time with Elders and take part in cultural practices that are fun. Building a canoe is a significant part of that.”

Uncle Fred Kelly, Dunghutti Elder

“You can never underestimate the excitement of hearing them say ‘Is that really going to float?’ and and then seeing their reactions when it does.”

Uncle Fred Kelly, Dunghutti Elder