Creating culture with bannocks

Looking to connect with her Métis roots, Donna Lee started Bannock Queen Bakery in 2016 to share her culture. Alongside her husband Ray and son Michael, the family-run business operates from Lee’s home in Surrey, where her knowledge of baking bannocks takes her from one farmers’ market to another.

“I learned so much about Métis culture,” she says, reflecting on what this business has taught her.

Since starting Bannock Queen, not only has Lee made more Métis friends, but she has also been able to promote and share her culture.

Michael Thompson from Bannock Queen will be part of the Speakers Series at Party for the Planet in Surrey on April 30.

Reclaiming her past

At a young age, Lee moved from Winnipeg to Esquimalt where her father served in the Navy; she lived on a naval base there until she turned 12. Lee was largely unfamiliar with her heritage, as her Indigenous grandmother rarely spoke of their history.

“Many Métis people did not speak of their ancestry in those days as they would accomplish a better status in the community,” says Lee.

It was not until 2014 when Lee began to search for her own ancestry after hearing of an important Métis lineage. In fact, she uncovered history she never expected.

“My biggest find was that my distant grandfather was Andrew McDermot, who helped establish the fur trade at the Forks-Red River and Assiniboine area of Winnipeg,” says Lee.

Donna Lee, the Bannock Queen.| Photo courtesy of Bannock Queen

McDermot was an incredible man who served as a Hudson’s Bay Company employee during the 19th century.

After uncovering this history, Lee hoped to share her Métis culture with her community. So, after visiting many farmers’ markets, Bannock Queen was born. She wanted the bakery to share her Métis heritage with a broader audience. Today, Lee specializes in Indigenous bannock, such as original bannock and cinnamon sugar. Her audiences at farmers’ markets love the homemade bannocks.

“It’s important to me that our baked goods are as fresh as possible,” she says.

On days when Lee attends farmers’ markets, she will bake around 1,000 pieces of bannock while her husband and son set up their stall. Even after successful careers in accounting and community healthcare, Lee has continued to grow her business – Bannock Queen has been a staple in Lee’s life.

“It means celebration of not only my own ancestry but a chance to bring forth historical information relating to the contribution of the Métis people to Canada,” says Lee, explaining how much Bannock Queen means to her.

The origins of bannocks

Bannocks, originally from Scotland, made their way to Canada during the fur trade in the 1600s. At the time, bannocks were simply coarse flour mixed with water and animal fat and baked near an open flame. It was a very simple and sustainable carbohydrate that many working-class people ate.

“Through trade for furs, many items such as grains and flours made it to the Indigenous population, along with the Indigenous Pemmican–dried and pulverized bison meat, mixed with fat and berries,” says Lee.

These items became provisional fast food as they provided ample protein and nutrients to workers in the harsh Canadian winters. Then, in the mid 19th century, baking powder was invented, which made bread more popular and better tasting. After the sale of various provinces by the Hudson’s Bay Company to England, Indigenous communities were forced onto reservations. Their main food source, bison, was over-harvested, so food handouts came into existence.

“A typical month’s rations would be 50 per cent wheat flour. This forced Indigenous peoples into a carbohydrate-rich diet from their previous meat and vegetable diets. Bannock, through necessity, innovation and just plain making do with what you have, came out of this,” says Lee.

Today, Lee makes bannocks with mainly household ingredients: flour, baking soda and more. She not only has a passion for starting a bakery, but Lee has the drive to spread her Métis heritage with others.

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