As Canada commemorates its 150th anniversary with hundreds of events scheduled throughout the country this year, here at MOA we are taking advantage of the opportunity to highlight the life-ways and practices of the First People who were living here for millennia before “Canada” even existed. Many First Nations traditions and practices, such as maple harvesting, are still very much alive today and part of the traditions we consider to be quintessentially Canadian.
As part of growing up or living in southern Ontario, most of us enjoy, or have enjoyed at some point in our lives, the opportunity to walk or even ride on a horse drawn-sleigh through a snowy woodlot in late winter, observing the spiles and buckets (or today, the acres of tubes!) hanging from trees, collecting maple sap. An isolated cabin, wood smoke billowing from the chimney and smelling of sweet, caramelised syrup is the highlight of our tour (short for the pancakes!), where sap is boiled in metal kettles or large, flat pans, reducing the liquid after many, many hours to the sweet, sticky, sugary treat that we all know and love.
These traditions that we associate with the Sugar Bush can be traced to First Nations origins, in which families would leave their homes and villages in late winter to set up small camps in the deciduous forest to collect maple (and/or birch, box-elder and white walnut) sap. Trees were scored, sap was collected and reduced. Before metals were introduced to the region from European settlers and traders, sap collection and processing used perishable containers such as wood and bark. Raw sap, rich in nutrients after the lean winter months, was also enjoyed as a tonic and a flavour enhancing base for soups, stews, and porridge. Processed syrup and sugar would preserve the taste of spring long into the year, used to sweeten culinary dishes and drinks and serving as a source of trade and commerce if collected in large enough quantities.
At our Maple Harvest Festival on March 11-12th, we will be honoured to have local First Nations Elders Dan and Mary-Lou Smoke on site to awaken the forest and conduct a sweet water blessing, thanking the trees for their nourishing gift. Anishinaabe Elder Larry McLeod will also be joining us from North Bay to teach us about the importance of birch bark, including its use as a basket to collect and even boil sap. We will also have sagamite, a traditional corn soup/stew made from fresh sap for tasting in the longhouse and an exhibition of archaeological objects relating to First Nations maple harvesting in our museum gallery.
We welcome our visitors to join us in this celebration of spring that has been honoured since time immemorial, the awakening of the forest (in the Forest City!) and the first harvest of the year. This is a festive time, marking an end to hunger and darkness as we welcome the return of light, life, and nourishment from the land around us. We hope to inspire in our visitors a wonder for the unique environment of this region in which maple trees flourish, an awareness of the wisdom and ingenuity of First Nations cultural practices and an appreciation for the rich heritage of Ontario which lies beneath our feet.