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Great Canadian Innovations

Containing a snapshot of our outdoorsy selves, the classic maple syrup can is evidence that Canada has put its stamp on maple syrup like few foods around

Maple syrup cans are seen at a sugar shack in Oka, Quebec.

Behold the beauty of the classic maple syrup can, that icon of Canadiana. In the picture, a farmer collects sap into buckets, horses haul a sleigh through the snow, and smoke billows from the chimney of a rustic sugar house.

It is Canada in a can. A snapshot of our outdoorsy selves harvesting the sweet elixir of nature.

Collecting a bucket of maple sap in rural Ontario, 1926

In fact, the nostalgic scene bears just a partial resemblance to Canada's high-stakes maple-syrup industry, which involves quotas, strategic reserves, and, when things go sour, criminal heists. But the can is evidence that this country has put its stamp on maple syrup like few foods around. It packaged and conceived it as a taste of our northern land, exported to places as far-flung as Afghanistan, Mongolia and Swaziland.

That this was done with a wild product that runs through our trees, flowing forth in the brief and hopeful window when winter cedes to spring, is a testament to Canadian inventiveness.

A tank wagon and sap house for maple syrup production in rural Ontario, 1926.

"Maple syrup has crossed cultures, crossed generations, and here we are in 2017 and we're still celebrating the product. This is an achievement in itself," says Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

No single person invented Canadian maple syrup, but many people can justifiably claim a piece of the prize for turning it into liquid gold. A barrel in Quebec currently is worth $1,800, about 25 times more than crude oil.

Tank wagon and evaporator house, 1956.

First Nations first discovered the sweet flavours of " sinzibuckwud" – Algonquin for "drawn from wood" – and passed on their sugar-making skills to European settlers. Innovations in syrup production have never stopped. Trade in sugaring products is believed to date to the early 1700s; in a relatively young country, it is one of the oldest industries around.

Geography helped make it this way. Four provinces – Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia – lie inside North America's so-called Maple Belt, where the land is blessed with precisely the varieties of trees that produce the highest quality sap. The maple has meshed with who we are. It's not for nothing that its leaf is on the Canadian flag, whose final design happened to be done by a Quebecker, Jacques St-Cyr.

Emptying sap into tank wagon, 1956.

Yes, geography allowed Canada to be the global superpower of sap, producing about 80 per cent of world output. Within this empire, Quebec sits at the pinnacle, generating 90 per cent of our nation's production.

Michel Beaudry is in a good position to witness this syrup supremacy. His family has harvested sap from their land's maples for 348 years, ever since Léonard Châteauvert got off the boat from France in 1669 and settled on a maple grove near Quebec City.

Danny Ayotte fills drums with Maple syrup, prepping it for pasteurization at the International Strategic Reserve in Saint-Antoine-de-Tilly, Que.

Mr. Beaudry's great-grandfather, Hercules, collected sap in cedar buckets and put his surplus on a schooner that stopped at villages along the St. Lawrence River. Mr. Beaudry's grandfather, Aloysius, boiled sap in metal kettles hung over an open fire. Nowadays, Mr. Beaudry has ditched horse-pulled sleighs for an all-terrain vehicle, and his operation involves plastic piping, vacuum pumps and a pressurized water-extraction system known as reverse osmosis.

The advances may not have the folkloric aura of the maple-syrup can, but they did help turn an artisanal production into a way to make a decent living.

Maple syrup product making operation, in Beachville, Ont.

"Maple syrup is precious to us," the 12 th-generation producer said from his maple operation, Ferme Le Patriote, in Donnacona, Que. "It's part of our heritage. Our family learned from natives and it's been transmitted from one generation to the next for 300 years. We love our sugar bushes the way the British love their gardens."

Like all 7,300 producers in Quebec, the 74-year-old Mr. Beaudry sells about half his haul to the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, which keeps tight controls over its supply and price.

Tapped trees at Gereli Farm in Shefford, Que., in April 2014.

Quebec churned out 148 million pounds of maple syrup last year, enough to fill 24 Olympic swimming pools and generate $400-million in earnings to the province's syrup makers. The harvest is stockpiled in three warehouses that constitute the Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve, a stash that sounds like it belongs in Geneva but in fact is located in rural Quebec. The reserve gained world notoriety in 2012 when six million pounds of the inventory vanished from a warehouse in what became known as the great maple-syrup heist.

Police arrested over two dozen people and the unlikely caper made its way to Hollywood. Three men are awaiting sentencing after being found guilty in the theft.

Gereli Farm owner Richard Semmelhaack boils the syrup used to make the exclusive Remonte-Pente maple syrup.

The crime was a spectacular gambit that pried the lid off a less savoury fact about maple-syrup production. Some dissident producers don't like the grip of the syrup federation. They want to sell outside the system, a wish that has been met by the sight of guards being posted on renegade producers' properties.

Internal rebellions aren't the only cloud on maple groves' horizon. Quebec's market share of syrup production is shrinking to competition from the United States, and climate change is making the sugaring season increasingly unpredictable.

Drums of Maple syrup are stacked in the International Strategic Reserve in Saint-Antoine-de-Tilly, Que.

Still, that is no reason to cease celebrating syrup, perhaps our most emblematic taste. Syrup is given out as gifts by Canadian diplomats; it's used in recipes in India mixed with turmeric powder, in Japan with shabu-shabu meat. At home, maple flakes are sprinkled on oatmeal at Tim Hortons. Lest anyone doubt its purchase over our national soul, consider how it inspired one of Canada's finest bards, Gordon Lightfoot:

Love and maple syrup shine like

Embers warm, like thoughts divine

They tell us it is spring

Love and maple syrup stir

The thoughts of people into words

Of songs that they can sing

It's enough to conjure up bucolic landscapes and snow-blanketed maple groves. Maybe it's just sappiness from a maple-syrup can. But it's irresistible.