Residential school survivors soon to be honoured with Indigenous spirit garden in Toronto

A public space in downtown Toronto will honour the survivors of residential schools. CityNews reporter Mark McAllister has the details.

By Mark McAllister

An Indigenous spirit garden to be constructed outside Toronto City Hall is closer to reality, with the design elements planned to honour residential school survivors nearly complete.

Partners involved with the Indian Residential School Survivors (IRSS) Legacy project have been working to transform the southwest corner of Nathan Phillips Square. The area will be considered “a place of teaching, learning, sharing and healing” with plans to incorporate a variety of public programs.

“That’s the biggest part of this project,” Theo Nazary, a strategic planner with the Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre, explained. “The biggest part of that is the educational component for Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people.”

Among the permanent features will be the sculpture of a large snapping turtle on top of a boulder, which will have the names of Ontario residential schools carved into the bottom. The turtle will be surrounded by water and facing City Hall, in a symbolic gesture of resilience and strength.

There will be a three-season teaching lodge, built as a space for special programming, including different ceremonies and workshops. Other elements will include an Inukshuk and Métis voyager canoe.

A white pine tree, symbolizing a sign of peace and the Great Law that told the Haudenosaunee Nation they were to bury their weapons underneath, will be planted at the south end of the site. Next to that, the Three Sisters garden with corn, beans and squash will represent the need to work together in unity.

“All of these pieces offer a teaching,” Nazary said. “They offer gifts to people like us and we’re able to learn about the culture, and we’re able to celebrate indigenous culture and history, while also honoring the survivors, the families, and the children that were lost in communities.”

The Spirit Garden is being created as part of Ontario’s commitment to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. Among the recommendations, was for provincial governments to “install a publicly accessible, highly visible, Residential Schools Monument in each capital city to honour Survivors and all the children who were lost to their families and communities.”

The City of Toronto has been involved in the planning, along with Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre, and has committed $13 million to the project.

“That work has been incredible,” Patrick Tobin, the city’s director of arts and culture services, said. “It’s been highly collaborative and really productive in terms of the design that is resulted, both at how faithful it is to the original vision but how much of an enhancement it will be to the square and letting people learn that difficult history in residential schools in Canada.”

Construction of the Spirit Garden is expected to start this fall, once a general contractor is hired, with the project completed and ready for the public to enjoy in 2023.

“It’s been a learning process for all of us,” Nazary said. “I think it’s been a life-changing experience for me and for Council Fire and for all the individuals involved. I think this is what reconciliation is all about.”

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