The people of northern Huronia – the peninsula that stretches toward the islands of Georgian Bay and includes the communities of Midland and Penetanguishene – are very proud of their region’s history. That pride is well founded, and a day exploring two heritage sites (the Huron Indian Village and Huronia Museum as well as Sainte-Marie among the Hurons) will open your eyes to the fact that some of the province’s oldest settlements, both Native and European were established here. This is essentially where modern Ontario began.
Visit the Huron Indian Village and Huronia Museum is found centrally in Little Lake Park. Tour the palisaded village that recreates the Huron way of life a thousand year ago. You’ll see several longhouses, complete with cooking fires, sleeping platforms, hanging pelts, and baskets of smoked fish, dried corn, and tobacco. The village includes a medicine man’s lodge, a wigwam for visiting tribes, a sweat bath, and lookout tower. A variety of implements are displayed, from hide scrapers to moss racks (cradles), and lacrosse sticks to canoes.
After exploring the village, enter the Huronia Museum. Be sure to see the exquisite grass, willow, and ash baskets elaborately decorated with porcupine quills in the Native arts collection. Much of the museum is taken up with household items: toys, looms, clocks, Victorian clothing, housewares, shipping records, and lighting fixtures. Visitors will be impressed with the extensive display of Canadian paper money from the days when each bank issued its own currency. The gallery displays works by notables William J. Wood, Frank Johnston, and AY Jackson. The gift shop’s collection of books on Native Canadian stories and culture is outstanding. There are kids’ March Break and summer camps.
Next, head to Midland’s premier attraction, Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, which is on Highway 12 overlooking the Wye River. Sainte-Marie is an accurate reconstruction of the seventeenth-century Jesuit mission that was Ontario’s first European community. An engaging film describes life in the fortified village, which served as a refuge for itinerant missionaries. The film presents a sotry of cultural tension, as the relationship between the French and the local Wendat people led to epidemics, famine, intertribal warfare, and the ultimate disappearance of Wendat society.
Staff members in period costume reenact daily routines, playing the parts of the “black robes” and the Native Christian converts. These mini-dramas occur throughout the village, in the smith and barns, at the long tables in the dining room, and near the birchbark cross in the Church of St. Joseph. Guests are invited to bake cornbread, weave baskets, tend fires, and chop firewood.
Sainte-Marie’s museum uses audiovisual displays, maps, and dioramas to detail the experiences of the early settlers, from social unrest in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to life on the lonely frontier.
Summer afternoon canoe trips turn a day at Sainte-Marie into an outdoor adventure. These 90-minute excursions, in 7-metre canoes like those used by the missionaries, transport visitors through the marsh for an explorer’s view of Sainte-Marie. Candlelight tours take place on summer evenings, and there are daily and weekly kids’ summer camps. There are a variety of special events throughout the year, including for National Aboriginal Day and the First Light Festival in late November in the lead up to Christmas. The park has a restaurant and a gift shop.
Across Highway 12 from Sainte-Marie is the famous Martyrs’ Shrine (1926). The massive, twin-spired church dominates the landscape for kilometres around, its silvery stone glinting in the sunlight. The twentieth-century shrine was built in memory of the Jesuits who labored at Sainte-Marie. Eight of these men were killed by Iroquois, and two are buried here. Six of the original brothers were canonized, the first men in North American thus recognized. Pilgrims come from around the world to attend mass, use the picnic grounds, explore the church, and see the site of Pope John Paul II’s visit.
Once you’ve explored these sites, you’ve walked through more than a thousand years of Ontario’s history – all in one day in Huronia.
Upcoming special events include the Thanksgiving Harvest Festival on October 12 and 13 and the magical First Night evenings November 28-30.