As April brought warmer (and muddier) days to Ottawa, it also brought a Canadian tradition one urban sugar shack has continued in the capital for 37 years: making maple syrup.
Muséoparc Vanier is one of 11 community museums and one of the few francophone heritage centres outside of Quebec.
Vanier is just five kilometres from the Parliament Buildings, and is considered a “francophone stronghold” in Ontario.
Located in the 17.5-acre urban park is the Vanier Sugar Shack at 300 Ave. Pères-Blancs.
Founded by the Pères-Blancs, a Catholic missionary group, the park and its native maple grove became home to its first sugar shack in 1939. A second shack was built in 1960.
“We have a lot of young families and it’s part of the learning and the importance of where the maple syrup comes from and how does that work. So, there’s a real educational side, a real history to that. I think there’s some nice ties to the Francophone community as well as the Indigenous community in the area.”— Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury
The departure of the Pères-Blancs in 1976 meant the use of the property as a syrup-producing sugar bush stopped until mid-1990. The most recent sugar shack opened in 1999 and the group Action Vanier took charge of management and the organization of the Sugar Festival, that had been launched in 1986.
“We have a big tradition of maple tapping and maple syrup in the park,” said Annick Normand, manager of communications and marketing at Muséoparc. “The festival is just a highlight of this tradition every year.”
Promoting French-Canadian history and maple syrup production in a festival has become a popular, annual attraction, drawing upwards of 5,000 attendees on spring weekends, said Normand.
This year, the festivities looked a little different. On Aug. 27, 2020, Ottawa Fire responded to a call reporting smoke and flames visible in the forest behind the Centre Richelieu-Vanier just before 6 a.m. The caller then confirmed that the Vanier Sugar Shack was on fire.
Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury said the fire happened at the same time as a string of arsons in the Vanier neighbourhood.
Because of the pandemic and the destruction of the sugar shack, the 37th Sugar Festival was held online this year between April 1 and 9.
Organizers did their “own take on the advent calendar” this year, Normand explained. New video content and special activities included a musical performance, cooking workshop, selfie photo booth, a maple sugar pastry demonstration by Ottawa cooking school Cordon Bleu and more.
“From the outset, our intention in organizing this edition of the festival was to reconnect with traditions by bringing to people the types of festive and family-oriented experiences customarily found at the Sugar Festival, but this time in virtual form,” Muséoparc Vanier executive director Madeleine Meilleur said in a statement posted at the Muséoparc website.
Despite its unconventional delivery this year, the Muséoparc Vanier Sugar Festival continues to be important to the community, said Fleury.
“We have a lot of young families and it’s part of the learning and the importance of where the maple syrup comes from and how does that work,” Fleury explained. “So, there’s a real educational side, a real history to that. I think there’s some nice ties to the Francophone community as well as the Indigenous community in the area.”
Since the destructive fire two years ago, planning has continued to rebuild the Sugar Shack.
“Luckily, we’re at the phase where construction is beginning,” Fleury said at the time of the festival. “We’re days away, if not weeks away, from all the approvals in place to have the funding to rebuild.”
And with those strong intentions come strong hopes for the future of the Sugar Festival.“Hopefully next year we’ll have the Sugar Festival in person,” said Normand. “It’s really our goal — joping that everything will be less contagious and will have the Sugar Shack revealed by then.”
Members of the Muséoparc Vanier team said they look forward to welcoming back Ottawa residents in the fall of 2022 once reconstruction is complete.
“If folks are like me, generally, they love maple syrup,” said Fleury. “We all have a sweet tooth and it’s great that it comes from a local source with a very community lens into the effort.”