Canadianist taps into maple syrup symbolism

Canada produces eighty percent of the world’s maple syrup, so it seems logical that over the course of time the sweet syrup has become a symbol of national identity. The delicacy is tied to Canada’s environment, culture, cuisine, politics, science and economy. These ties were explored in Elizabeth Jewett’s lecture, “Tapping the History of Commodity and Cuisine” on Jan. 30.

Presenting at the Owens Art Gallery, Jewett addressed university and community members in Mount Allison’s Stanley Lecture, given annually in Dr. George F. G. Stanley’s honour by a distinguished Mt. A Canadianist, or someone knowledgeable about Canada.

Jewett’s research encompasses many different fields in examining the history and various productions of maple syrup, making her work an interdisciplinary study. She is mainly interested in the creation, regulation and sale of “sweetness” in the maple syrup industry, from the mid-19th century to the present day.

“This project was a long time coming,” Jewett said, as she showed pictures of her as a girl helping out at her family maple syrup farm of five generations. “[I wanted] to better understand the traditions that have been part of my entire life,” she said, stating the importance of her personal connection. “But [it is also a] very important part of Canadian history.”

In a Q&A period, Leo Gertler, a second-year English student and gallery employee, asked Jewett about Quebec’s domination of maple syrup production, in relation to defining Canadian identity. This sparked a discussion in which Jewett explained that maple syrup was originally a symbol of Québécois identity.

“I have never taken a Canadian studies course, so it’s unlikely that I would have even heard about the Stanley Lecture [if not for working at the Owens],” Gertler said.

Apart from her research on national identity, Jewett also examines the government’s policing of “pure” syrup and the idyllic imagery present on packaging as “a way to preserve culture, tradition, family and community and to allow those outside of the tradition in.”

Jewett said that this research requires extensive knowledge of the area’s environment. “[We] need healthy producers and these are the trees.” She emphasized the importance of tending to and caring for our surrounding environment to best benefit from it.

Although most of the event’s attendees were Sackville community members, many students were also present, including members of the Canadian Studies Society.

“We are trying to make a name for our program [and] get students more involved by either joining our society or taking a class in Canadian studies,” fourth-year Canadian studies student and society president Sam Prowse said. Members of the society were in attendance to expand their knowledge and support members of the Mt. A Canadian studies program.

One of Jewett’s next steps in her research is to start collecting oral histories and Indigenous stories about maple syrup production. So far she has explored federal and provincial archives, government documents, personal papers, magazines, brochures and even cookbooks. However, she felt that something was missing. “It is important to include Indigenous voices [and] to get those contemporary stories,” Jewett said.

Jewett comes from the University of Toronto and specializes in environmental and cultural aspects of Canadian history. She is the current WP Bell postdoctoral fellow with the Centre for Canadian studies at Mt. A.

Andreas Fobes/The Argosy
Emma Bush