Postcard from the Beauce

October 31, 2023

Happy Halloween! Here is a photograph of me with Angèle Grenier, my favourite maple syrup rebel grandmother, on Oct. 25, in front of her home, about 300 kilometres east of Montréal in St. Clotilde de Beauce, Québec.

I got to know Grenier back in 2015 when a National Post photographer and I traveled deep into the heart of the Beauce to write about a loosely grouped gang of rebels who fought to throw off the shackles of what was then called the Fédération de Producteurs Acéricoles du Québec. Quebec by that point was already about 15 years into a strict supply management régime where, if a producer made syrup in large quantities, i.e. 200 litre steel barrels (same size as a barrel of crude oil) they must sell it through the single buying agent of the federation, and get paid the federation`s agreed rate for the syrup, on a payment schedule agreed by the federation.

Grenier, whose family are all maple syrup producers from as far back as she can remember, wanted to sell her syrup on the open market. When the federation, now known as the Producteurs et Productrices Acéricoles du Québec, told her no, she snuck her barrels of syrup out of the province and sold the maple syrup in New Brunswick. The producers federation cracked down on her and slapped her with steeper and steeper fines. Grenier went to court and lost all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. When the country`s highest court refused to hear her appeal, Grenier and her loyal and supportive husband, Nelson Grenier, saw no alternative. They sold their sugar shack and their house in the forest, and got out of the syrup business.

Now the Greniers live in the village of St. Clotilde de Beauce, which is where I paid them a visit the other day. I was there to do research for my upcoming book on the history of maple syrup in Canada.

Angèle, whose name, “Angel,” befits her, seems to have largely recovered from her travails. She had decorated her house for Halloween, with help from some grandchildren. The Greniers are unfailing in their hospitality. Angele put on the table a feast of roast chicken breast with root vegetables, including carrots she`d pulled from her garden the evening before. Then we took a drive down the road and went to the forest. You can`t keep a good woman down; the Greniers have bought another sugar bush, deep in the woods a few kilometres from their home. But they say they have no plans to make maple syrup.

My trip to the Greniers was just one highlight of my week-long excursion through Québec. I also spent time with a retired detective from the Sureté du Québec, to gain details of the famous heist of maple syrup of 2011-2012, which remains the most valuable theft in Canadian history: thieves stole $18 million. Not to give away too much, but let`s just say crime does not pay. A lot of people went to jail. I also visited a couple of biologists near Thetford Mines. I stayed at the Motel Frontenac. Behind the motel rise improbable mountains of tailings from the asbestos mines that built the community. It doesn`t sound like a place that would be big in maple syrup, but it is. I even spent some time in the local Dominion and Grimm shop, an outlet of the famed maple syrup equipment manufacturer, and ogled a little evaporator.

In addition, I visited St. Ferdinand in the heart of maple syrup country and did a lot of research at the Bibliotèque et archives nationales du Québec. Montreal is such a civilized place that you can actuallly get off the Métro at Berri-UQAM and walk straight into the Grande Bibliotèque without so much as going out on the street. Quite the place.

At the Dominion and Grimm shop the owner compared himself to Obélix, the faithful companion of Astérix in the comic book series about the Gaules who resist the Roman conquest. “I love maple syrup,” the man said. “I am like Obélix: I fell in the cauldron of magic potion when I was a baby.”

Truth told, I believe I may have spent some time in the cauldron, too.