Tapping into a history that connects maple syrup to First Nations

Shay Quill

Sunday March 27, 2016

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On a cold Thursday afternoon in March, Tabitha Martens and students from Maples Collegiate meet in a Winnipeg park to learn how to tap maple syrup. 

The students are part of an after school program called Food is Our Language, which connects indigenous youth to their culture’s food practices.

Even though maple syrup is a quintessential Québécois food, its origins are actually connected to indigenous people.

“Maple syrup is a neechi food … conventional sugar didn’t come until things like the fur trade and then later with treaty negotiations,” said Tabitha Martens.

Maple Syrup in Manitoba1:23

“In those treaty negotiations rations were promised, and part of those rations were often sugar.”

The group meets with arborist Ken Fosty, who is an expert at tapping maple trees — he even has his own syrup company called Fosty’s Syrup.

Fosty shows the students how to identify maple trees, extract sap, and turn the sap into maple syrup.

Connects students to their culture

“In the beginning I’ve not been involved in my culture until I joined this program … and it’s been more into depth into my culture about indigenous foods,” said student Dion Wood.

For Wood, indigenous food not only connects him to his culture, it also helps bring down the cost of eating nutritiously.

“We make homemade food every day from anything that my uncle catches, or my grandpa catches he sends them [to Winnipeg] … It really helps us money-wise and getting from our culture more.”

Shay Quill jumps at the chance to tap a maple tree in Winnipeg’s St. John’s park. (Erica Daniels)

Having spent a lot of his youth living on a trapline, Wood is very familiar with indigenous food, but was surprised to find out that maple syrup was an indigenous food, saying he thought it was European. 

Student Shay Quill is not one to shy away from a challenge, so she jumped at the opportunity to tap a maple tree. Through the program she has become an expert at making Indian tacos, and really enjoyed learning how to ice fish.

For Quill, the program will have a lasting impact on her, and, as she said, will “bring the culture into our next generation.”



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