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Canadian Folklore: Myths and Legends to Regale Your Students

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Myths and legends handed down over generations help to tell the stories of the cultures, people, and great mysteries of our world, and while folklore exists across the globe, shedding light on people, places and time periods throughout human history, let’s take a look at one country that continues to mystify and marvel with its folktales and origin stories.

Legend has it, I’ve teamed up with a group of fellow Canadian educators to compile a list of Canadian myths and legends to regale your students. This list is by no means complete, but it is sure to captivate and enthral your students!

The Legend of the Sleeping Giant

Growing up and living in northern Ontario, at the top of Lake Superior, Katie from Mochas and Markbooks is regularly reminded of an old Ojibwa legend surrounding the great giant that can be seen laying in the water with a rich silver mine buried at its feet.

Looking out across Lake Superior from the shores of Thunder Bay, Ontario, you’ll see a mysterious land formation that looks like a giant who laid down to sleep. This “Sleeping Giant” or “Sleepy G” as locals call it, has become a symbol for the city, which once was the site of Fort William, one of the oldest fur trading posts in North America. Pre-contact however, many different tribes of Algonquin people lived on this land.

The story of how the Sleeping Giant came to be is very old, and while there are variations of the tale, this is the most popular. According to legend, there was a powerful and benevolent god,

Nanabijou, who loved the Ojibwa people of the Great Lakes region, and tried to protect them during the time of European colonization. As a gift, Nanabijou told the Ojibwa people where to find silver, but warned that the Europeans must never learn about it or it would become a curse and Nanabijou would turn to stone.

The Ojibwa began to mine the silver and produced such beautiful items that other tribes began to get jealous, especially the Sioux, who sent a scout to spy on them, learning of the location of the silver mine. On his way back, the scout stopped at a trading post and paid with a piece of silver which intrigued the two Europeans working there. The Europeans gave the scout alcohol until he revealed the location of the silver mine.

The Europeans set off to find the silver mine and Nanabijou realized what had happened, creating a great storm on Lake Superior that overturned their boat, killing them. Nanabijou laid down, folding his arms over his chest, and tucking the silver mine at his feet before turning to stone, where he still lays to this day protecting his gift.

Today, an annual music festival takes place in the city called “Wake the Giant” which aims at creating a more welcoming and inclusive city for Indigenous people and youth traveling to the lakehead for their education.

The Legend of Ogopogo and Oak Island

There is nothing better than a great mystery – a myth, a legend, a little folklore. And Canada has some good tales. Kristy from 2 Peas and a Dog loves to maintain engagement in her classroom by bringing in Canadian folklore  whenever possible. 

The legend of Ogopogo in Kelowna, British Columbia’s Okanagan Lake, has captivated people for decades. The Interior Salish First Nation people first spoke about N’ha-a-itk – the spirit of the lake – thousands of years ago. European settlers then transformed the stories they heard into what eventually became the creature of Ogopogo. Reported to be a giant, snake-like animal in the lake – with a head maybe like a horse, maybe like a goat – Ogopogo has never definitively been captured on film. But people still try!  This is a great 4-minute story from Global News on the never-ending interest in Ogopogo. Once students learn about this Canadian folklore – have them “travel” to Scotland to learn about the Loch Ness Monster

Don’t forget Canada also has a legendary buried treasure mystery! You may be familiar with the History Channel’s TV show “The Curse of Oak Island,” which has been running since 2014. This small, unassuming piece of land in Nova Scotia became the rumoured home of a “money pit” (possibly from pirates) in the late 1700s when a young boy and his friends started digging there. More treasure hunters came and found what they believe was evidence of the money pit.

For 200 years, people have tried to find the treasure – six people have died as a result – and no one has succeeded. Have your students learn more about the Oak Island Canadian mystery.

Sasquach Legends

Sasquatch, also known as Bigfoot, is believed to have originated with Indigenous Peoples in North America, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. It is considered sacred to West Coast First Nations, particularly the Sts’ailes, who have lived in the Harrison River Valley for at least 10,000 years. Some First Nations, such as Cree and Ojibwe, have a similar creature in their folklore known as Sabé. Though somewhat  similar in appearance, they are different creatures.

While both legends appear as large, hairy men, Sabé is a trickster. He plays pranks on humans and has supernatural powers. He is included in the Traditional Grandfather Teachings used to teach young children the family values. Sasquatch is shy and reclusive and stays away from humans. It is believed one will smell his distinct odor before ever spotting him in the forest. He is the most infamous legend hunted by modern day adventure seekers.

In the modern world, these creatures have become part of popular culture. To read books by Indigenous authors check out this post full of ideas.

The Cremation of Sam McGee

A tall tale, a myth, a legend, AND a work of fiction, perhaps, all rolled into one. Yes, “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service fits all of these categories.

This 1907 poem is about a prospector named Sam McGee who freezes to death in the Yukon only to be cremated by his companion and suddenly appear alive in the flames. The story is a classic of Canadian folklore having gained popularity in the 20th century as a campfire story and then as a staple of elementary school readings. 

However, Lesa from SmithTeaches9to12 loves to use Service’s poem, especially with the accompaniment of Johnny Cash’s audio and/or Ted Harrison’s visuals as part of a genre study. Lesa takes it from classic story to genre study by having students consider the ways in which the story can be classified. 

As part of this mini-unit students define a series of common genres and establish their common features. Students then investigate different poems and stories, including Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee” to think critically about how they might categorize it, and select evidence to support their claims. Finally students write a paragraph to share their findings. 

This is just one way to use poetry beyond traditional analysis! Check out the poetry section of Lesa’s blog for TONS of other suggestions.

Raven Brings the Light

The story of Raven Brings the Light is an important tale from the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest. According to the legend, before there was light in the world, it was shrouded in darkness. The animals who lived in this darkness were unable to see and had to navigate using their other senses.

Raven, the trickster figure in many indigenous stories, became tired of living in darkness and decided to do something about it. He transformed himself into a tiny speck of dust and floated into the home of the Sky Chief, who kept the light locked away. Raven tricked the Sky Chief into releasing the light, and he carried it back to earth in his beak. As he flew across the sky, the light spilled out and illuminated the world for the first time.

The story of Raven Brings the Light is often seen as a reminder of the power of creativity and resourcefulness, as well as the importance of light and knowledge. It is a beloved tale among

indigenous communities in Canada and continues to be passed down through generations.

Marissa from Creative Classroom Core loves using this Indigenous Strong Story with her learners.  The picture book version, illustrated by Canadian artist Roy Vickers, is a favorite read aloud that can be shared with both elementary and middle school learners.  To read more about this engaging story, and other favorite Indigenous read alouds, check out this post from the Creative Classroom Core blog.

The Ghost Bride of the Fairmont Banff Springs

Your students might already be familiar with several of the Fairmont properties across Canada; from the Chateau Lake Louise in Alberta to the Royal York in downtown Toronto, these iconic locations are a celebrated part of our national landscape. It may come as a surprise, but some luxury vacation destinations have been linked to the origins of various urban legends. 

One such legend is that of the ghost bride of the Fairmont Banff Springs. The Banff Springs is tucked away in the Canadian Rockies, located approximately 130 kilometers from Calgary, Alberta.  Legend has it that this giant castle in the mountains is haunted by a young woman who died on her wedding day.  Daina from Mondays Made Easy can confirm – as a former staff member, she has heard many stories about the notorious ghost bride!

Many, many years ago, it is said that the woman tripped over the hemline of her wedding dress and fell down the grandiose set of

stairs. This fall resulted in a catastrophic injury to the neck, ultimately proving to be fatal.

Since the conception of this legend, several guests and staff of the Fairmont Banff Springs have reported sightings of the ghost bride. These sightings have included her wandering through the golf course and forested areas of the hotel grounds to staring into the windows of her former room. Some staff have even reported strange phone calls coming from the room itself!

While some dismiss the legend as mere superstition, others believe that there may be some truth to the story. Regardless, the tale of the Ghost Bride adds an extra layer of intrigue and mystery to an already fascinating destination.  To explore this urban legend with your students, check out this article in the Calgary Herald or discuss the significance of her feature on this Canadian stamp.

We hope you and your students enjoy these riveting tales as much as we enjoyed sharing them! Let us know which ones you plan to use, or any myths or legends you would add to this list!

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