Vernice’s visit to Canada – quill work exhibition

Vernice’s visit to Canada – porcupine quill work – Peterborough Museum, Ontario, Canada

Vernice Canada 2023 2
Hannah McCue

In July I was visiting relatives in Ontario and one of them knowing of my interest in “craftwork”, took me to an exhibition in Peterborough Museum.  

The exhibition was entitled “To Honour and Respect: Gifts from the Michi Saagiig Women to the Prince of Wales, 1860”. The items on display were mainly Birchbark Quillwork baskets (called makaks) which were presented to eighteen year old Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). 

Vernice Canada 2023 1 Hannah McCue age 38
Hannah McCue

This is a summary from the exhibition’s catalogue, of the background to the giving of the gifts. An event with a definite purpose beyond gift-giving to a visiting royal.  

In 1859 when Queen Victoria was petitioned by the Canadian legislature to visit her subjects, she asked her eldest son to travel in her place. The official purpose of the visit was to open the new Victoria Bridge in Montreal and to acknowledge the close relationship between Canada and the Crown. The Prince was the despair of his father, who complained that his son was interested only in clothes, so the tour had the purpose of teaching the Prince “something of royal duties and diplomacy”.


One stop on his tour was at Rice Lake (in what was then a British Colony) where the indigenous people were the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg who had a long relationship with the Crown including acting as British Allies during the Seven Years War,  the American Revolution and the War of 1812. They responded to the changing world around them in their own distinct way, retaining their language and their clans and their way of being in the universe. The Prince’s visit was thought to give the people the opportunity “of uniting in their expression of loyalty and attachment to the Throne and Empire”. However the indigenous people did not consider themselves to be British subjects, but to be Sovereign Nations allied to the Crown. To them formal alliances carried sacred expectations that each party would support and care for the other. Speeches and gifts given to the Prince carefully reminded the Crown of its obligations and responsibilities as an ally.


In anticipation of the royal visit, the Superintendent of Canada West visited his sprawling district to rally support for the occasion and to tell each community what they needed to do to prepare. The women of Rice Lake had a reputation as skilled artisans and may have been asked to create quilled birchbark gifts for the Prince.

Below are some of the exhibits.

The following is a shortened description of making the Birchbark Quillwork baskets…….


Collecting and preparing natural raw materials was part of the seasonal round and indigenous people knew the best times and places to collect these. The thickness of the Birchbark determined its use. Bark peeled in the Spring was heavier and strong enough to use for canoes; bark harvested in the early summer was thinner and used for mats and containers. Containers are made by first heating the bark over a fire or steaming it to make is pliable, then bending it into the desired shape and sewing it with basswood fibre or spruce roots. They made watertight cooking containers, bark buckets to catch maple sap, large shallow trays for winnowing wild rice and makaks or boxlike baskets in a variety of shapes to store maple sugar, wild rice and other items. Designs can be added to the makaks by scraping away the background to expose lighter bark underneath or by adding Porcupine quillwork designs. Across generations, the women learnt the skill of how to quill the patterns, plan shapes and designs and the repeated motion of bending and tacking quills as well as the modulations of colour and proportion. The baskets are decorated with both floral and geometric motifs.


These items were on loan to the Museum by permission of King Charles and are normally kept and displayed at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, so if you wanted to see them, you don’t have to travel to Canada!!

Thank you Vernice for sharing your visit along with the photos. 


Further research: 

Royal Collection Trust

Peterborough Museum

Michi Saagiig women

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