Steve Bruno's idea of the canoe as being the ultimate cultural icon of the Ontario wilderness adventure took shape when he was tasked with organizing a package for a German magazine. Bruno is a coordinator with Ontario Tourism, and he is especially passionate about outdoor adventure in the province's north. With so many options, "the goal was to sell something more than just a canoe trip," he recalls.
So Bruno developed an itinerary with a layover in Atikokan, Ont., the gateway to Quetico Provincial Park, with visits to local outfitters and Souris River Canoes' manufacturing facility, plus a stop at Thunder Bay, Ont.'s Fort William Historic Park—a recreated fur trade post. Finally, the writer and photographer flew into the vast wilderness of Wabakimi Provincial Park for a canoe trip. Throughout, Bruno focused on a common thread: The canoe. With this template in place, the iconic Canadian watercraft became the center of Ontario Tourism's 2017 campaign, which includes an impressive documentary film by Toronto-based filmmaker Goh Iromoto.
"After all my experience of kicking around Ontario, paddling and getting to know all of the people involved with the paddling industry, I realized we really have a strong canoe culture that unites us as a province and as a country," says Bruno. "It starts with the kids at summer camp, the manufacturers and the outfitters. This is as much about sea kayaking, rafting and SUP as it is about canoeing. The goal is to embrace all paddlesports. Canoe culture brings the tribe together."
Iromoto's film, The Canoe, is his third feature for Ontario Tourism—his previous documentaries highlighted British bushcraft personality Ray Mears' and the Ontario wilderness. What's striking about all of Iromoto's films is the authenticity of the productions. These cinematic films are a far cry from the usual variety of "branded content" and instead share real stories of the paddling lifestyle and conservation.
Besides Iromoto's stunning photography, The Canoe features canoe historian and author James Raffan, who formerly served as the director of the Canadian Canoe Museum. The film uses the canoe as a metaphor for Canada—a vision of a nation where indigenous cultures and immigrants come together "in the same boat." Iromoto, himself, is a prime example, says Bruno. "He's a passionate paddler and having Japanese heritage, he's lived the experience."
Bruno admits he's had to shift the perspective of some of his tourism colleagues in developing his campaigns. The Canoe is largely comprised of scenes and inspiring stories that have nothing to do with tourism packages at all. Case in point is Bruno's favorite segment—the story of Thunder Bay-based First Nations activist Gail Bannon, who has reintroduced birchbark canoe-building to indigenous youth. "It's a new model for us," he says. "It's not meant to be an Ontario Tourism commercial. It's meant to be deeper and more in line with people's values. The fact that The Canoe has been picked up by 55 film festivals demonstrates that."
Now, Bruno is coming off successful tradeshows in the United Kingdom and Toronto. He says local outfitters are rallying under the "canoe badge" and interest is growing in the Ontario wilderness—especially overseas—as a result of a partnership with Mears.
"I'm so proud of what we've done," he says. "It's always good when you've got something that people want."