Sharing is Caring: How a Canoe Share is Fostering Community (mid-pandemic) in Hamilton, ON

Matt Thompson on connecting people with place through the power of paddling.

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hen COVID-19 hit Ontario in March of 2020, Matt Thompson quickly realized the kind of effects the pandemic lockdown and distancing restrictions could have on his tightknit community in downtown Hamilton, ON. As the weather began warming up and he looked forward to paddling season that spring he had an idea about how to restore the sense of connection that the pandemic threatened: a community canoe share based out of his own backyard.

Matt’s canoe share project is born from mutual aid – a belief that members of a community with additional resources have a responsibility to let other members who don’t have them share or borrow those resources. “I love my canoe, my canoe is fantastic, but I’m not using it all of the time.” Last April Matt put the word out on Instagram that he’d make his canoe available to anyone who wanted to borrow it. Word spread through the magic of social media and word of mouth from friends to friends of friends and occasionally complete strangers who connect with Matt over Instagram direct message. During the 2020 paddling season he estimates the canoe was borrowed approximately 30 times – sometimes from folks coming by solo to borrow the canoe for early morning fishing sessions, sometimes by groups of friends or young families with pets.

Matt’s Prospector 17 is loaned with a cart attached, so borrowers can pick it up on foot and simply roll the canoe 20 minutes down the bike paths of downtown Hamilton before they arrive at a water access point. How’s that for an easy portage?

Owing to pandemic travel restrictions local outdoor recreation and urban paddling has seen a major boost. People are realizing that they don’t need to travel far or go anywhere remote to enjoy the pleasures of being outside and on the water. “I’m really interested in and passionate about building people’s relationships with the landscapes that are directly around them, because not everyone can go to Algonquin all the time.”

Indeed the ability to escape the city and head into the backcountry is a privilege. Matt realizes this and intentionally organizes the canoe share to eliminate some of the obstacles that new paddlers, especially in dense urban environments, might face such as storage space or access to a vehicle: “It’s such a powerful thing to be with friends and family out on the water and I want to remove as many barriers to that as possible, in the same way that libraries remove barriers to books.”

The goal of the canoe share project is pretty simple – make it possible for more people to paddle, including groups that aren’t typically seen on the water. It’s working: “There’s been so much demand already that I’ve actually just ordered a second canoe from Nova Craft. Because most people only want to use the canoe on weekends I hated being in a position where I was turning people away, and as vaccinations roll out and things start to open up again I can only see demand increasing… I’ve even had people come to me from Mississauga. They took the GO bus from Mississauga to borrow my canoe. So that’s a testament to how resonant this program is with people.”

Ultimately, Matt says, community is about “want(ing) to feel resonance with other people in the place where we live. During Covid especially it’s amazing to have two or three friends come by and borrow the canoe and take it out and feel like we can contribute to that social cohesion and connection that so many of us have been missing. I see in people a connection forming between where they live and who they’re paddling with and I see that as deeply meaningful, especially during a pandemic.”

With the community canoe share project Matt feels he has demonstrated a model that he hopes other individuals, organizations or municipal governments will take up and invest in. “It doesn’t take a lot of money to make this happen and the positive outcomes we’ve seen are huge.” To an individual looking to start their own canoe share Matt advises starting with a small and trusted circle of friends. “Once you get feedback from those people about how (paddling) makes them feel I guarantee you’ll feel motivated to grow its reach.”