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Bread and Cheese Day: The 155-year-old tradition delayed due to COVID-19

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TORONTO —
While some Canadians mourn lost cottage weekends and barbecues because of COVID-19 restrictions, Six Nations of the Grand River has had to press pause on a 155-year-long tradition.

Bread and Cheese Day is how Six Nations celebrates the May long weekend, an annual tradition that began in the 1860s when Queen Victoria began gifting Six Nations members blankets for their allyship during the War of 1812.

“As a way to show her appreciation, she gifted Haudenosaunee people with a blanket, each person with a blanket,” Helen Miller, council member of Six Nations of the Grand River, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Monday.

The gifts stopped for more than 20 years beginning in 1901 when Queen Victoria died, and when it resumed it was with different gifts.

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“In 1924, when the elected system was put in place, they revised the tradition,” said Miller. “Instead of giving blankets, they changed it to a loaf of bread and a hunk of cheese.”

In 1924, the Canadian federal government replaced the traditional Six Nations council with an elected council under the Indian Act. Both the traditional Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council and the elected council remain in place today.

While the switch from blankets to bread and cheese are unclear, Miller believes it was an effort to save money and ensure the members of Six Nations were fed.

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Other changes have been made to the event over the years, most notably it was altered from consistently falling on May 24 each year, to being on the Monday of the May long weekend. It’s also become a major celebration for Six Nations, with a wide variety of activities throughout the day.

“When I was young, when I went to Bread and Cheese, they had Track and Field day for the youth, for all the different schools, and then we’d all line up to get our bread and cheese,” Miller added.

It’s grown over the years, too, becoming a major event on the reserve.

“Over the years it kept progressing and progressing, getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” said Miller. “They started having a parade I think back in the ‘80s. Now they have a small midway almost like a fair.”

Despite the growth in the event’s popularity and the changes made over the years, it remains a very family oriented event.

“It’s really still family oriented. People get to see people and see relatives. It’s really a nice day,” she said.

Since this year’s event has been postponed due to COVID-19, she thinks that next year’s event could be the biggest one they see yet. And this year, families are keeping up the tradition within their households.

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“My niece went out, bought bread and cheese, she came around and gave it to all of us,” she said, adding that she heard other families were doing the same thing.

While there’s been disappointment over the postponed celebration, she said the community has been otherwise supportive. Last year, the council members handed out bread and cheese to each family on the reserve.

Miller has been going to Bread and Cheese Day for most of her life, save the years she lived off reserve, and she said that her earliest memories of the event are from when she was very little.

She remembers being 5 years old, her mom packing up a picnic, and her family piling into the car to go to Bread and Cheese Day.

“She would put a blanket out and have all our picnic stuff there. That would be our spot for the day, and us kids would run around and play and I’d go in the races. I was a runner, so I ran the races all the time.“

In all of her memories of Bread and Cheese Day, it’s bringing the community together that stands out to her.

“Really, for me, the best memories are togetherness.” 

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