Changing spaces: Professors work with Elder, youth to create Indigenous garden in urban setting

The garden alongside the Dalla Lana School of Public Health features plants native to the land such as serviceberry, staghorn sumac and red osier dogwood (photo courtesy Agata Mrozowski)

Walking north along McCaul Street toward College Street in downtown Toronto, it’s easy to miss the narrow garden alongside of the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health building – a small sliver of green space surrounded by buildings that compete for, and often win, the attention of passersby. But the small garden is anything but insignificant.  

Last year, Angela Mashford-Pringle, associate director of the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health and an assistant professor in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, collaborated with Elder Whabagoon and Associate Professor Liat Margolis – both from the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design – to renew the space with plants native to the land. 

The project stemmed from Answering the Call Wecheehetowin: Final Report of the Steering Committee for the University of Toronto Response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada – specifically the Calls to Action related to Indigenous spaces on campus and to demonstrate and advocate for decolonial land-based teaching and environmental stewardship.

Elder Whabagoon is an Ojibway Elder who sits with the Loon Clan. She is a Keeper of Sacred Pipes, a member of the Lac Seul First Nation and a Sixties Scoop survivor. For the past five summers, she and Margolis have led a unique summer access program called Nikibii Dawadinna Giigwag (NDG) that shares traditional teachings with Indigenous youth and shows them how to integrate this knowledge to landscape architecture and ecological design. 

During the winter semester in 2021, a group of Margolis’ students produced three concepts for the garden on McCaul Street and, in late summer, the youth prepared the space according to the chosen concept. The garden is now lush with plants such as serviceberry (used for medicinal and edible purposes), staghorn sumac (consumed as tea to treat colds), and red osier dogwood (for basketry, ceremonial pipe tobacco and constructing sweat lodges and fish traps).  

From left: Associate Professor Liat Margolis and Assistant Professor Angela Mashford-Pringle (photos by Kasia Peruzzi and Victoria Pringle)

Margolis says that each plant has a fruit that wild animals can eat. “We think about all of our relations, all of our kin,” she explains. “We envisioned this planting along McCaul Street as a place where Angela or other instructors at the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute could visit with an Elder or Knowledge Keeper and share teachings around these plants.”  

In addition to traditional medicinal and teaching benefits, native plant gardens are vital as we face a warming world.

“Indigenous people have been on these territories in Canada, the United States and globally for thousands of years,” says Mashford-Pringle. “We were taught our teachings about how to keep the natural world in order. Our languages come from the land, from interactions with the land ... If we really want to get out of this climate emergency, we need to start talking to Indigenous people who know how to deal with it.”  

Elder Whabagoon

In Elder Whabagoon’s talks, she has posed a series of questions – What if the trees went to war? What if they stopped breathing for a day? What would happen to us? – that show how the relationship between nature and humans is connected. While that fact can be easily be forgotten when living in downtown Toronto, Indigenous gardens like the one on McCaul serve as reminders of this interdependence.  

Elder Whabagoon says that Nikibii Dawadinna Giigwag and programs like it work to educate young people about the inherent agreement humans have with the land.

“We just have to keep working for the next generation,” she says, adding that parents of youth participating in the program have come up to her in the past to say, “What have you done with my daughter or son? They’ve changed. They actually read books. They are trying more.”

After a long history in which Indigenous Peoples in Canada were targeted with colonial campaigns to erase their cultures, languages and beliefs, such programs plant seeds of curiosity in youth to learn more about their heritage.  

Many in the next generation are listening. Maggie Devins-Cann, a student at Trent University has attended the Nikibii Dawadinna Giigwag access program since high school and credits it with the educational path she is on.

“I am going into my second year at Trent University in the Indigenous Environmental Studies and Sciences program,” says Devins-Cann. “I was always interested in environmental studies but didn’t know much about my culture when I was younger. Going into this summer program, I gained a really big passion for learning about it.”   

Maggie Devins-Cann and peers participate in the Nikibii Dawadinna Giigwag access program 
(photo courtesy Agata Mrozowski)

Mashford-Pringle is also working to expand Indigenous practices and teachings inside the course offerings at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

For example, she has introduced land-based learning and renovations to Hart House Farm.

“I don’t like our classrooms at St. George. People don’t get to look at each other. We don’t know what circles are,” she says, adding this is why she has developed a course where students live, study and cook together at Hart House Farm in Caledon, Ont.

By learning from Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Keepers while on the farm, students recognize how important courses like these are for urgent issues like environmentalism and reconciliation.

But what about back in the city?  

“Often times, you get a little corner somewhere – a little circle area and, again, it’s sadly not unlike the reserve system saying, ‘Well, here’s your spot, here’s your little space where you can gather.’”

This isn’t enough when it comes to addressing truth and reconciliation or Indigenous spaces, adds Mashford-Pringle. “If you look at the map of St. George, let alone the other campuses, we have the incredible capacity and responsibility to make an enormous impact on the landscape in terms of increasing vegetative cover, increasing biodiversity, providing habitat, providing food sources and edible landscapes so that we never go hungry.”  

The garden on McCaul Street may be small right now, but with hope and commitment, much more of campus can see the reintroduction of native species and Indigenous ways of learning, says Mashford-Pringle.

“We need to think about what our role is as an urban campus to environmental stewardship. That to me is the core of foundational and Indigenous thinking.” 

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