Flags line the terminal as I land at Toronto Airport, celebrating ‘Canada 150’, the official birthday of the nation. My trip to a remote part of Ontario, however, would reveal that there is much more to the country’s history than the past century and a half.
This was my first time in Canada, and as such I was armed only with the usual stereotypes – ice hockey, Bryan Adams, maple syrup, a dashing Prime Minister with amazing hair – but as we flew the short hop from Toronto to Sudbury, and the city gave way to a green landscape, I could already tell I was about to see a very different side to the country.
I was visiting Manitoulin Island, which is, with 1,600 km of coastline, the largest freshwater island in the world. Manitoulin is so large in fact, that the island has many of its own lakes inside of it, some of them with their own islands (and some of those with their own ponds).
This Russian nesting doll of an island is located to the north of Toronto on Lake Huron, one of the five Great Lakes of North America, and the one most likely to win you a pub quiz. The Manitoulin Hotel where I was staying for the week offers a gorgeous view of the nearby lakes and mountains, but that seems to be the norm for everywhere you go on the island. Picturesque towns punctuate miles of breathtaking nature, home to wildlife like wolves, bears and moose.
Manitoulin is also a main settlement of the First Nations Peoples in Canada, the predominant indigenous population about whom I’ll be learning. There are more than 600 First Nations governments spread across the country, almost half of which are in the state of Ontario.
The first stop is M’Chigeeng and the Ojibway Cultural Foundation, which serves to teach visitors about First Nations traditions. Here, my genial guide conducts a purification ceremony, a custom that eradicates bad energy, informally called “smudging”. It’s a brief introduction followed by talks on various First Nations crafts and practices.
A more practical exploration of First Nations’ connection to nature came when we met a guide from the nearby Great Spirit Circle Trail, which offers classes and experiences centred around the First Nations way of life.
He takes me on a medicine walk, where he shows me how each plant can be used to treat various ailments, build shelter, or even make a makeshift nappy. Not all of the plant life is there to help, however. When the guide warns me to “watch out for that poison ivy”, I leap in the air in a way that subtly betrays the fact I am not the ‘outdoors type’.
Traditional craft and food stalls surround a circular main stage, where the tribes are introduced and the dances begin. Some dances are sacred and conducted by elders. Video recording is not allowed, and the performance is conducted with a hushed reverence.
I feared my lack of grit would be even more exposed the following day as I returned to the Great Spirit Circle Trail to make a traditional dream catcher. Surrounded by intricate examples of the craft, my guide half-informs, half-warns that it’s believed a dream catcher contains the energy of the person making it. I do my best to remain in a positive frame of mind as the threads knot and tangle around my clumsy fingers. Somewhere on Manitoulin Island there now exists a dream catcher brimming with psychic frustration. But after some patient tuition it becomes a therapeutic experience. I left with a calm energy and a chilled-out, aesthetically pleasing catcher.
Later, canoeing on the calm, glass-like water of Lake Mindemoya sets a similarly peaceful tone, and with no one but a few locals swimming nearby it’s as if I had found my own private lake. If you don’t trust yourself with an oar, secluded tranquility can also be found at the Bridal Veil Falls in the town of Kagawong. An extraordinarily beautiful natural waterfall, it’s a little bit of paradise waiting for locals and visitors in the know.
I head along to the finale of my trip hoping to burn off breakfast – the island sources most of its food locally, though portion sizes are still distinctly American. I’ve been invited to a pow wow, a meeting between several of the region’s tribes. It’s a vibrant social gathering. Traditional craft and food stalls surround a circular main stage, where the tribes are introduced and the dances begin. Some dances are sacred and conducted by elders. Video recording is not allowed, and the performance is conducted with a hushed reverence.
It’s an incredible medley of costumes, theatre and music, as several generations come together to celebrate their joint history. The welcoming atmosphere and pride on display is uniquely humbling.
Touted by the tourism board as Ontario’s best kept secret, there are a number of different ways to enjoy Manitoulin Island. As a quiet getaway it offers unrivalled tranquillity, with little towns such as Little Current, where I stayed, bringing to mind Martha’s Vineyard.
Delve a little deeper however, and there is a rich culture here that few other destinations can offer. At a time when Canada is celebrating its past, this is the perfect opportunity to discover a lesser known chapter.