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Niagara-on-the-Lake
Tuesday, August 9, 2022
Canada Day cake about setting NOTL apart and bringing people together
Catharine O'Donnell and her granddaughter Alyanna O'Donnell stand beside the Canada Day cake in Simcoe Park on July 1. Alyanna had a hand in helping design some of the little characters adorning the cake.
Catharine O'Donnell and her granddaughter Alyanna O'Donnell stand beside the Canada Day cake in Simcoe Park on July 1. Alyanna had a hand in helping design some of the little characters adorning the cake. Evan Saunders

For 18 years, Willow Cakes & Pastries owner Catharine O’Donnell has been making the mammoth cake for the Canada Day parade.

This year she focused the design around kids.

“I went with an enchanted forest because I just felt that, after two years of ugliness and not being outside, we all wanted to escape to a forest,” said O’Donnell in an interview.

“And I just thought, for the kids — I do my cakes for the kids and not for the adults — I thought they would relate to the little characters and actually feel good,” she said. “As much as we all want maple leafs all over it and for it to be truly Canadian, I think that this year was about feeling good.”

The cake was replete with whimsical characters and colourful mushrooms.

But there was certainly a very Canadian aspect to the cake. Its centrepiece was a large maple tree.

“I’m many, many generations Canadian. So, very proud,” she said.

O’Donnell covers the expenses of the 1,000 pound cake herself. But she said she doesn’t think about the cost as a burden.

“It’s actually the one way we can say thank you to the community. None of us small businesses would actually be here without the locals sometimes digging a little bit deeper into their pockets to help us.”

“So, for me, it’s a way of saying, ‘Hey, you know what, we appreciate those days where we’ve screwed up a cake’ or ‘We appreciate those days where we’ve done something wrong and you’ve come back and given us another chance.’”

Like a true artist, O’Donnell said she is still chasing the perfect design.

“I always want them to be more than they are,” she said with a laugh.

“I think the day I look at a cake and say, ‘Now, I can’t do better than that,’ then I should actually stop making them. I’m not there yet.”

She said there is no better feeling than seeing how excited people get as the cake descends into Simcoe Park.

One of O’Donnell’s helpers this year was her granddaughter, Alyanna O’Donnell.

She said seeing Alyanna ride in the electric buggy at the front of the parade and wave like Queen Elizabeth at the crowds was memorable.

“I said, ‘Oh my god,’ When I saw her doing the Queen wave. I thought, ‘Who taught you that?’”

O’Donnell said one of her favourite parts about participating in the Canada Day parade is providing NOTL with something unique that continues to make it a one-of-a-kind destination for tourists.

“We need the locals but let’s not be naive — our town survives on tourism,” she said.

O’Donnell said she researched whether any other municipalities do something similar for Canada Day. She was pleased to see NOTL was the only one with a giant cake parade.

O’Donnell met a couple from London, Ontario on July 1. They told her they drive to NOTL every year just for the cake parade.

“Imagine how many people in London they’ve told to come to Niagara-on-the-Lake to see the cake parade,” she said. “You want the tourists to choose us over Stratford or us over Toronto.”

So hopefully O’Donnell never does make that perfect cake. For it will be a sore day when NOTL’s resident cake making master steps down from the annual tradition she has enabled for nearly two decades.

“It’s not about Willow (Cakes & Pastries). Doing the cake is about bringing everybody together. But also making our tourists feel really welcome to be in our town.”