Eastern white cedar towers high, forming a protective circle around moss, fungi and grasses in The Healing Place. Sweetgrass rustles in the wind, and the wind itself creates a sweet harmony to match the breath of sugar maples. At its heart, a brilliant bed of strawberries symbolizes the connection between mind, body, and spirit. The Healing Place aims to teach people that reconciliation goes beyond just people, and involves the land and biodiversity as well.
As the Pope prepares to visit Canada with what First Nations communities are hoping is an apology, many thoughts are turning to the continued need to heal. Projects like The Healing Place provide a source of inspiration. Supported by Plenty Canada, The Healing Place is a grassroots community project on Mohawk and Algonquin land at South Nation Conservation, a 50-minute drive south of Ottawa.
The Healing Place is a green space that provides a location for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to heal with the land, and for Indigenous people to hold ceremonies and promote reconciliation through a land back notion. The land back notion advocates for the lands that once originally belonged to Indigenous people to be governed by Indigenous people today.
“It brings us together, it’s a place for gathering, it’s a place for ceremony,” says Abraham Francis, environmental services manager for the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. “It represents a gathering place for stories to be told, for community to be built, and for healing to occur between First Nations, Canadians and the land.”
The Healing Places is made up of different plant species that have been carefully selected in order to match the biocultural context of the nation they are planted in. This selection is done by keeping in mind the biodiversity of the area, planting species such as the sugar maple, as well as other plants that are culturally important to local Indigenous communities. In this instance, a medicine garden sits at the centre of the grounds containing strawberries, red currants, gooseberries, and other medicinal herbs.
“There’s an accountability aspect to this for Canadians and the way that they continue to benefit from the dispossession of Indigenous people from their lands and the exploitation of our resources,” Francis says.
These plants are chosen specifically after examining which plant and animal species in the area are most at risk. The current planted species would help with the restoration of animals such as the bobolink, eastern meadowlark, and the gorgone checkerspot butterfly.
All conservation efforts are made with the use of traditional Indigenous knowledge. The space can be seen as a way Indigenous knowledge should be used to make an impact on not only the environment, but on a way to heal together.
The medicine garden at the centre of the grounds provides Indigenous people with access to plant medicines they may not have had before.
Reconciliation is defined as the establishment of respectful relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Healing Place incorporates the land into the notion of reconciliation, as it was also damaged through the colonial timeline.
“In a post-COVID world, there is a lot of hope for these kinds of spaces,” says Francis. “This is just a baby, we are looking at something that we may not see the end of. We may not get to see the full embodiment of the space. We are just planting the seeds.”
Different ceremonies and events are held to allow Indigenous people to have a space to participate in cultural practices, but they also exist as a means to teach non-Indigenous people in the community about Indigenous practices. Replanting the land together, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can work together to restore something that was taken through colonialism.
“There is a lot of work to be done, and giving us the time and patience to show up to the table under our terms is really important,” Francis says.
Plenty Canada hopes to build a network of Healing Places across Canada. Each location would look completely different, as it would be made to match the biocultural context of the Indigenous land it is on. The Healing Place through its ecological restoration and education demonstrates how reconciliation is a reciprocal process that must be met with understanding, patience, and the willingness to learn.
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