Canoeing into Canadian Life

Read about Michael Zhang's experience at Toronto Island

As Michael Zhang solo paddles a bright red Nova Craft Canoe at the Toronto Islands, the nation’s largest and most populous city flickers just a few kilometres away. Out here, it’s just Michael and his canoe. The sun dips behind a row of identical green-and-blue-tinted glass condo towers, and cotton-candy-like clouds filter across the horizon.

Eight years ago, Michael couldn’t have imagined such a quiet moment alone in a canoe. He immigrated to Canada from Beijing in 2008 with wife Riya Wang, and the couple now love canoeing and experiencing wilderness with their four-year-old son, Michael Jr. For Michael and his family, canoeing is much more than an activity—it’s one of the ways they feel connected to their new home. 

For new Canadians like Michael who move to large cities, finding areas in the city they can paddle and experience canoe culture can lead to a stronger sense of belonging and identity in their new country.

Not long after he arrived in Canada, Michael was part of a photoshoot at the Harbourfront, an area of Toronto that has the multicultural downtown of the city as a backyard and the stunning, remote-feeling Toronto Islands as a front yard. The photoshoot involved canoeing, kayaking and SUP on Lake Ontario, an experience that got Michael hooked on exploring nature in a small, non-motorized vessel. “We sort of got this sense that if you want to be Canadian, this is part of your identity—being in a canoe, being out there enjoying the waters,” says Michael. The passion extends to his family, even Michael Jr., who has his own small paddle and can spend hours canoeing with his parents without complaint.

Canada continues to grow more diverse each year, and Toronto is widely considered to be one of the most multicultural cities in the world, with half of the 2.79 million residents born outside the country. In such an enormous city, places like the Harbourfront Canoe and Kayak Centre provide a way for new Canadians to learn about an activity that is a key part of Canadian heritage.

Boris Issaev, one of the founders of non-profit initiative Parkbus, sees exposure to wilderness areas as key to forming a strong connection to Canada. Parkbus provides express bus service to wilderness destinations in Canada, allowing many urban dwellers to partake in outdoor activities—like canoeing—that many who grew up paddling may take for granted. “I think the outdoors is a part of Canadian culture you can’t separate,” Issaev says.

On a hazy Toronto afternoon, Michael sterns his canoe through calm passageways at the Toronto Islands while Michael Jr. rests beside the yoke, and Riya paddles in the bow. The family moves past seagulls and low-lying vegetation on the island banks. Michael says partaking in canoeing has made him feel more Canadian, especially because it connects him to the history of this country. “I love history, and I firmly believe that in order to be a real Canadian you need to learn the history of Canada, how the country was founded, how the country came to today,” he says before referencing Indigenous canoes and fur trading.

Michael, his wife Riya and son Michael Jr. enjoy an afternoon paddle.

Michael also sees the canoe as a vehicle to allow him to explore areas he may not otherwise see. “You need to give yourself tools, give yourself means to see more things and see things better,” he says. While a canoe is a valuable tool for exploring far-flung rivers and lakes, it also provides endless adventure right in the city. As diversity continues to be the norm in Toronto and Canada as a whole, drawing new Canadians towards canoeing and canoe culture can help forge this kind of priceless connection. With cities as the starting point for many immigrants, places like the Harbourfront Canoe and Kayak Centre become vitally important.

Michael feels connected to Canada as he paddles in Toronto Harbour.  

The sun disappears and Michael climbs out of the canoe. He is done for today, but he’ll be back. The startling contrast between the city and the tranquility of the Toronto Islands keeps him returning. “It’s probably one of the best kept secrets of this city.”

If You Go

Harbourfront Canoe and Kayak Centre offers lessons, rentals and tours.

Want to stretch your legs after a paddle? The Toronto Islands have tennis courts, softball diamonds, volleyball courts and Frisbee golf.

The Toronto Islands are home to amazing array of wildlife. See what you can spot using this guide.

The History of the Toronto Islands

Did you know the Toronto Islands were originally sand bars originating from the Scarborough Bluffs? Learn more fascinating history about this favorite Toronto destination here.

Don’t Miss

Visiting Artscape Gibraltar Point, a beachfront arts centre on the Toronto Islands that is home to artists in residence, work studios and arts events.

The Canadian International Air Show, a late summer aviation performance over Lake Ontario.

Bringing some charcoal with you to the Toronto Islands and having an epic BBQ overlooking Lake Ontario using one of the pits or stands scattered throughout the islands.

About Hannah Griffin

Hannah Griffin is a journalist and photographer whose work has been published by Al Jazeera, Vice and Rapid. She has a Master’s of Journalism from New York University and has reported from coastal British Columbia and Mongolia.

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