A family of Atikamekw show a French-Canadian family how to harvest the syrup of the sugar maple.

Is there anything more Canadian than maple syrup? "Sugaring time," that brief space between winter and spring when the snow starts to melt and the sap begins to flow in the maple groves evokes romantic images of our pioneering past. Despite the technological advances in farming techniques, production of maple syrup remains largely a "family operation," essentially unchanged from its traditional past.

The skill of collecting and processing the sweet sap of the sugar maple was known and valued by the Indigenous peoples of eastern North America long before the arrival of European settlers. There is even a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) legend to explain the discovery of maple syrup. As the story goes, a Haudenosaunee chief yanked his hatchet out of the maple tree where he had left it, and set off for a day of hunting. He didn't notice the deep gash his blade had left in the tree, but all day a colourless liquid trickled from the gash, collecting in a birchbark bowl that was leaning against the maple tree. The following day his wife noticed the full bowl, and thinking it was water, used the liquid to cook a venison stew. The resulting sweet stew was a happy accident, beginning the culinary tradition of maple-cured meats.

World production of maple syrup is limited to the Maple Belt, the hardwood forest that stretches from the midwestern US through Ontario, Québec and New England and into the Maritimes. The sugar maple tree creates a high-energy sugar inside the leaves, which mixes with the water absorbed by the tree's roots to form a sap which flows through the tree. These sugars mature during the winter, and in early spring, as the days become warmer, the sap begins to flow.

"Sugering-off" was largely a woman's function in Indigenous communities. Each spring, the community moved from their winter hunting grounds and set up camp in a sugar bush. Each woman in the household had her own sugar hut surrounded by a bush of sugar maples. The men cut notches into the tree trunks and small hand-carved wooden troughs were stuck into the bark. A wooden bowl placed on the ground caught the sap that dripped along the trough. When the bowls were full, the entire family carried the sap to the sugar hut to begin the next stage of making syrup. To evaporate the water from the sap they placed stones heated in a fire inside the pots of sap - a slow, laborious process.

By watching the Indigenous peoples, Canada's early settlers learned how to tap maple trees and boil the sap down to make syrup. They experimented with Indigenous methods and improved upon them. Instead of gashing the bark, settlers drilled holes in the tree, pushing wooden spouts, or spiles, into the holes. They hung buckets from nails below the spiles to protect the buckets from strong winds or animals. They also used iron pots over open fires to evaporate the water.

You will still find this traditional bucket collection in many parts of rural Canada, although it is largely being replaced by a labour-saving system of plastic tubing connected to vacuum pumps for storage of the sap. Even so, the short season of "maple moon" is still a sweet reminder of the hopefulness of spring.

  • Agathe – Marie-Josée Normand
  • Atikamekw – Dominique Rankin
  • Atikamekw Father – Claude McKenzie
  • Atikamekw Mother – Michelle Audette
  • French Girl – Théa Phillips
  • French Father – Daniel Arnaud
  • French Mother– Pascale Devigne