Wychwood Garden helps urban Indigenous people reconnect with the land

The Green Line team visited the Mashkikiiaki’ing or Medicine Earth garden to learn how Indigenous folks are keeping their cultural traditions alive in Toronto.

By Aneesa Bhanji, Amanda Seraphina, and Anita Li of The Green Line

Although it’s only a few subway stops from the downtown core, the neighbourhood of Wychwood is a lot less hectic.

Among its many green spaces is the Mashkikiiaki’ing, or Medicine Earth garden, a community space run by Indigenous people for Indigenous people.

Thanks to a partnership between the Native Men’s Residence (Na-Me-Res) and The Stop Community Food Centre, men from the shelter can come to the garden to grow traditional medicine, make sacred fires and learn how to harvest their own food.

“We have all the stuff that we need for our ceremonies, but we also show the guys how to grow the green peppers, cabbages [and] stuff like that, so that they have different things that they can take home with them,” says Big Thunder (John Laforme), life skills coordinator at Na-Me-Res.

“With regard to our neighbours here, it means building a relationship because there’s all of that systemic criticism — of people being homeless, coming out of jails, coming from different areas of life — that a lot of our community feels all the time,” he explains. “We’re not all bad people.”

Open to all local Indigenous, Inuit and Métis peoples, Mashkikiiaki’ing has been in Wychwood for over 20 years.

Karl Cousineau, who’s Métis, has been coming to the garden since he was 19. It’s become Cousineau’s ideal spot for reflection, where he often sits to watch the birds.

“I realize a lot of the mistakes that I’ve done in the past….I’m working on a lot of things like accountability, and being at a garden like this — nothing happens instantaneously. So, it’s always coming back and tending to the flowers or the plants or the medicines,” he says.

Magpie Arancibia, Mashkikiiaki’ing’s program coordinator and a member of the Mapuche Nation in South America, says his goal is to keep cultural traditions alive among urban Indigenous in Toronto.

“It’s to help the men who are in healing at Na-Me-Res to get a land-based style of teaching, more so in the sense of moving away from institutionalized ways and more to their traditional ways,” Arancibia says.

He adds that he makes a point of teaching participants how to grow their own food and to provide them with urban agricultural knowledge, while also helping them learn about their cultural traditions, like traditional medicines.

Ultimately, Big Thunder hopes there will be more spaces like Mashkikiiaki’ing for Indigenous people in Toronto.

“You have other little gardens around the city, like different churches have got the medicines and stuff. But this is one of the only ones that has all the medicines, and it’s run by the Indigenous community; so, I mean, it’s very unique. I think there should be more in the city,” he says.

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