February 14, 2012 · Updated 9:09 AM

The sweet sugary scent of maple syrup filled the rafters of Beban Park’s Auditorium this weekend.

Children buzzed with sugar highs from toffee on snow and the warmth of fiddle music surrounded me as I walked among families eating breakfast Saturday morning.

The event was a place to indulge in French-Canadian fare, music and culture. Children found their inner giggle thanks to the entertaining skills of clowns and families whiled away the hours listening to main stage entertainers.

Since moving to Nanaimo about three years ago I have always looked forward to the Maple Sugar Festival.  The Maple Sugar Festival Du Sucre D’Erable is a Nanaimo Festival that is important to the community. It is a place to have fun but also an important cultural exchange where people can learn a little bit more about French Canadian culture. These kinds of festivals help build cultural understanding.

Attending the festival makes me wish that I knew more French. Although we are a bilingual country I struggled to learn the language as I was growing up. I didn’t start to learn French until late in elementary school and early junior high school. French emersion wasn’t an option where I lived. I would have had to attend school in the next town to enter the program and with two working parents taking me to another community to learn wasn’t possible. I knew of many other students who enjoyed their time in immersion classes. And there are many days that I wished I had the opportunity to learn it from an early age. Perhaps I could have had a conversation in French at the Festival?

It was while I was attending the children’s entertainment at the Maple Sugar festival that I understood it is never too late to learn. The clown counted down in French and taught the children the correct words for colours in French and English. I understood many of the words and phrases she was saying even though I haven’t spoken French for years.

The few words I know that have stuck with me were taught to me by friends. That’s why the Maple Sugar Festival holds such fascination for me. I find the words I learn through casual conversations are the most memorable. A simple hello in a new language and you are suddenly on your way to becoming bilingual.

Sharing cultural traditions is an important aspect of any community. We learn from each other through sometimes simple means. A story can become a gateway to start a conversation about a person’s past. A song can be a conversation starter that opens the doors to more understanding and acceptance by another.

The Maple Sugar Festival follows only a month after the Chinese New Year revelries. This year people enjoyed the festivities at various events throughout the city. I had the privilege to attend the festivities at the Nanaimo Museum and Vancouver Island University hosted community events. I enjoyed the fact that people in this community are so willing to open their festivities and share events that important in their lives.

Understanding isn’t easy. However, just starting a conversation or sitting and listening are two key things we can do to create a more inclusive and better community. It takes time to understand and we many never fully see where a person is coming from. Yet, trying to see what the person means is half of the battle.

There are great opportunities in our community to understand other cultures. Organizations such as the L’Association des francophones de Nanaimo and the Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society are great places to start creating a conversation about creating a welcoming community.

These organizations are avenues that people in the community people can access to create a place we can be proud to call home.