The Kawartha Lakes are a chain of lakes in south-central Ontario that form the upper watershed of the Trent River. Among the lakes included in the chain is Pidgeon Lake, which sits just west of Buckhorn Lake and, slightly further east, Curve Lake. Within Pidgeon Lake sits a 104-acre land mass known as Jacob’s Island.  Today the island is located just 100 metres off the lake’s shore, but in ancient times it was most likely connected to the mainland.

The lakes, the island and, in fact, the entire Kawartha area is situated in the traditional lands of the Mississauga Anishinaabe First Nations people. Local stewards in the area around Jacob’s Island include the Curve Lake First Nation, a Mississauga Ojibway First Nation located in Peterborough County. In an era of Reconciliation, teaching the long history of Jacob’s Island, the First Nations people in the area and their connections to the island has never been more important. It’s with that spirit in mind that the program team at Camp Maple Leaf, Jacob Island’s primary tenant, have introduced a vital indigenous teaching component into their annual summer camp programs.

“The island is very important to the Indigenous people of the area,” said Camp Maple Leaf camp Director, April Young. “We are incorporating many different elements into all our camp programs that celebrate it more and to demonstrate greater respect to the land we’re on.”

To ensure the authenticity of the new First Nations content being woven into the curriculum of each camp session, directors of Camp Maple Leaf reached out to a number of knowledge keepers to assist them with program development. That included Glen Caradus, a former Trent University Indigenous Studies major and consultant who has helped developed Indigenous awareness programs at several summer camps. According to Glen, there were important objectives to consider when developing the new programs for Camp Maple Leaf.

“I think there are two parts, the first thing being to foster an appreciation for the long history of the island,” he said. “Then to understand, knowing that their neighbour is Curve Lake First Nations, to look at some of the issues around Reconciliation and doing it in a fun way. It’s a summer camp for kids, so it’s not about laying something heavy on the kids. It’s really to create some awareness and to hopefully move things forward to a stronger relationship with Curve Lake.”

To initiate that relationship with Camp Maple Leaf’s First Nations neighbours, Glen was joined on his first visit to the camp by Anne Taylor, who now sits as the Anishinabemowin Coordinator for the Curve Lake First Nations community. Together, the pair worked to audit the First Nation’s programming content to ensure its accuracy, with Anne providing additional teaching to camp staff on Indigenous culture. Sharing such knowledge of First Nations’ history is an important benefit for campers according to Taylor.

“It’s very very necessary,” she said. “As much as we are in the news these days as First Nations people, we are still not present enough in the curriculum of the education system. There are a lot of cultural and traditional teachings that aren’t available once children leave the school system.  Teaching something as simple as how to start a fire is important to know because it shows people how we did survive, and how we continue to use those skills and technologies. They might seem in some circles as old or not very effective. For us, they’ve always worked and are always reliable.”

Through the various activities developed for the First Nations’ component, Anne said campers can enjoy a hands-on interaction that helps demonstrate the traditional ways Indigenous people connected with both the land and the environment.

“We make use of what is available to us on the land, so it’s a very good way of teaching kids not just about our footprint on the land, but their footprint and the whole idea of food security and the idea of what we do to the environment comes back to us through the food chain. That’s very important, because it teaches kids an appreciation of what to do when they’re out on the land, the way to treat the land and how to treat each other. It goes a long way into building a better understanding.”

Every camp session held each summer at Camp Maple Leaf now incorporates First Nations teachings into the weekly scheduled activities. And according to the Camp Director, the immersive nature of the activities helps broaden their impact on campers, leading to a deeper appreciation of the lessons being taught.

“Every week we have a one hour period that they spend doing hands on programs,” explained April. “We encourage campers to use all five senses, seeing, tasting, smelling, so they’re getting real experience. Rather than just reading about sumac, for example, they’ll go on hikes and collect sumac to make sumac or cedar tea.  They’ll learn to make a fire with flint and bow, trying to create sparks to build the fire and boil the water. Everyone gets to sleep outdoors one night a week, with older kids getting to sleep in the birch bark wigwams on site. Some kids graduate to cooking meals around the fire, meals that may have been authentic to Indigenous people on the island. A lot of kids got to try buffalo or bannock.”

Like history itself, the First Nations content incorporated into Camp Maple Leaf programs continues to unfold and evolve thanks to the ongoing collaborative input of Caradus, Curve Lake partners and camp staff. And while the new activities being taught come from Indigenous culture, Caradus says the lessons reflect the same core principles that define the camp culture fostered annually at Camp Maple Leaf.

“Take the traditional practice of the bow and drill fire starting,” said Caradus. “That’s in Indigenous practice common around the world. The Indigenous games played are really fun. I have a map that shows some of the names given to local areas by the Mississauga Anishinaabe to give (campers) a sense of Indigenous perspective. Kids are coming to camp from different areas so they might not have a sense of the local history of the Mississauga. There’s also a play done at campfires with a narrator about the history of the lake that finishes off with thoughts of Reconciliation, the values it presents about friendship, caring and sharing. That’s what camp communities are all about.”

According to Executive Director Kim Smith, future plans for the Indigenous programming at Camp Maple Leaf include actively encouraging employment applications from the youth community at Curve Lake, as well as offering Elders opportunity to share their wisdom with campers.

“Our First Nations programming sharply increases our campers’ awareness of Indigenous culture,” said Kim. “Indigenous people have camped on the island for time immemorial. Our camp is on the very same ground once walked by those same people, which creates a direction for the campers.”