In the spring of 2019, Ms. Chin, a science teacher at WCI, had the idea for an Indigenous medicinal garden as part of an initiative to promote the education of Indigenous issues within the school. After a year and a half of planning and collaborating, the garden opened on September 22nd, 2020.
Prior to this, staff and administration had already begun working to incorporate Indigenous issues into the school.
The idea came in the spring of 2019 when Chin attended a meeting offered by Waterloo Region School Gardens, an organization that helps schools in the area build vegetable gardens. This was when Chin first conceived the idea of building a garden at WCI.
Then, within about a week, Chin received an email about the Tim Walker Memorial Awards for Environmental Stewardship. These awards are held annually by the WRDSB to commemorate the late Tim Walker, a teacher who greatly contributed to environmental education and initiatives before he passed. Of all the applicants, four schools are chosen and each receive a grant of $500.
Chin proposed the idea for the garden to other teachers, and to Mr. Chapman, the vice-principal in charge of facilities, workplace inspection and commencement. Chapman had always wanted to investigate the idea of an Indigenous garden, so he was on board, and Chin received a positive response from other staff members.
Before he worked at WCI, Chapman used to teach at Esquimalt High School in Victoria, British Columbia. The school drew its students from the local area, which included the Songhees Nation, the Esquimalt Nation, and the Esquimalt Naval Base.
Chapman therefore had the chance to develop a relationship with several Indigenous students and the school’s Indigenous department. It was through these experiences that he gained an understanding of the importance of including Indigenous issues in school life, which he was then tasked with carrying out when he came to WCI in 2016.
With the help of others, his accomplishments in this area include having the Territorial Acknowledgement played over the announcements every morning in different languages, and having WCI be the first school in the WRDSB to have a plaque at the front of the school with the board’s Territorial Acknowledgement inscribed on it. Chapman also gave presentations in staff meetings detailing opportunities to engage people in Indigenous learning.
In this, he and Chin found an alignment, and as they were working to incorporate Indigenous issues into the school, Chin proposed the idea for the garden.
The first step in the process of creating the garden was to secure funding for the project. Chin applied for the Tim Walker awards, which featured explanations of the project’s goals and reasoning, along with short, written testimonies from 12 different teachers explaining how they would use the garden in their classes. Chin won and received the grant in late April of 2019.
However, if the project was going to happen, and in such a way that it could be sustainable and commemorative, more funds needed to be obtained. So, Chin wrote and submitted an application for the TD Friends of the Environment Foundation Grant. The application requested $8,450 for the project. Chin received the full sum in October of 2019.
A third grant she received from Heritage Canada for $5,000 would not end up being used for the garden, but rather as financial backing for initiatives surrounding the education of the history and legacy of residential schools.
While Chin was getting the funding in place, Chapman made the necessary administrative arrangements, as any changes to the landscape of a WRDSB property must be approved by the school board.
With the funds and permissions secured, the planning for the layout and construction of the garden could begin. For this, Nicole Robinson came to Chin’s aid.
Robinson is the Equity and Inclusion Officer with an Indigenous Focus at the WRDSB, and a member of the Oneida Nation of the Thames First Nation. Her job is to help teachers incorporate Indigenous content into their teachings, to support Indigenous students, and to connect schools within the board to the Indigenous community. It is also her role to vet anything within the school board with an Indigenous focus, making sure that it is done properly.
Robinson connected Chin with people to consult on the design of the garden: Jill Byers of Waterloo Region School Gardens, HT Lam, the Principal Landscape Architect with Savanta Consulting, and Dave Skene and Garrison Mcleary, Indigenous Consultants at White Owl Ancestry, all contributed to the layout of the garden.
The armour stone surrounding the garden was to be built in a circle to emulate the medicine wheel teachings.
This idea stems from the concept of cyclicism, a philosophy common in Indigenous culture. It is the worldview that cyclical rhythms govern and balance the nature of both the spiritual and natural world. Migration, day and night, life and death, etc., are all dictated by the natural cycles of the world.
The garden was also to be divided into four quadrants, dictated by the shape and positioning of the garden boxes at the center, which is symbolic of the four seasons, directions, colours, elements, etc., all of which hold some significance in Indigenous culture.
30 different plants were to be planted in the garden boxes, including three of the four sacred herbs: sage, cedar, and sweetgrass. Tobacco, the fourth sacred herb was not included, the planting of it on school grounds being a recent subject of contention.
The entrance walkway was to be installed on the eastern side of the garden, and that was to be the only entrance into the garden. The reason for this is that in Indigenous culture, the east, where the sun rises, represents birth.
With the plan in place, Jordan Ward, owner of Creative Landscape Depot offered free mulch and soil, and discounts on the armour stone. The Kayanase Greenhouse and Six Nations Reserve provided many of the plants that were used. Mrs. Martin-Argueta, an ESL/ELD teacher at WCI, who, with her husband, owns JCA trees, donated the serviceberry tree, provided the cedars which were planted outside the garden, and supplied a few other plants as well.
Mr. Peterman, the woodworking and construction teacher at WCI, was planning on having his class build the garden boxes. But due to the restrictions brought upon by COVID-19, Peterman was unable to do so. Chin found a volunteer from the community who was able to construct the boxes instead.
The original timeline was to have the garden’s construction complete by June 12th of the 2019-2020 school year, but again, because of changes caused by COVID-19, the project was delayed.
Construction began on August 22nd, 2020 and was spread across four weeks. Chin insisted on getting the project done before the winter. Because of the pandemic, she saw an even greater need for an outdoor space.
Chin was involved in the construction all the way through. Chapman, who worked as a landscaper before he worked in education, was also involved in most of the construction.
Over the weekend of August 22nd, the armour stone was installed with the help of Brandon Mason, owner of Array Contracting, who offered discounts and to work over the weekend.
The mulch and soil were added over the first week of September, with several staff members staying after school to help out.
The second week of September was when the plants, grass and cedar trees were all planted. Marina I., a grade 12 student and one of Chin’s former students, was planning to gather students to help with this step, but the pandemic prevented her from doing so.
The serviceberry tree was planted and the flagstones for the entrance walkway were installed the third week of September.
Before the space would become available for use, Chin wanted to make sure that the space was opened in an appropriate way. Her original intention was to have an opening ceremony with all the people who contributed and members of the Indigenous community in the area in attendance, along with staff and students. Again, due to the pandemic, no such ceremony could take place.
However, since Chin still wanted the space to be properly opened before use, what was referred to as a “soft ceremony” was held on September 22nd. There were approximately 30 teachers and staff members in attendance including Chin, Chapman, Robinson, and two students including Marina.
Chin also wanted the ceremony itself to be run in a proper way. So, Clarence Cachagee, Robinson’s partner, served as their Indigenous knowledge keeper and ran the ceremony.
Originally, Robinson expected that all that was going to happen was a simple smudging.
Smudging is an Indigenous practice wherein herbs are burned in a smudging bowl, and the smoke from the herbs is spread over either one’s body or a space in order to cleanse the person/space and open up the positive energy within them/it.
But, with more people attending the ceremony than expected, it turned out to be much more than just a smudging. The ceremony consisted of an opening prayer, which acknowledged all the things in creation that allowed them to be there that day. Robinson and Cachagee also lead the group in the singing of songs, and the smudging of both the space and the people in attendance.
Mr. Vander Meulen, WCI’s Indigenous studies teacher, and one of the teachers who was present, remarked that it was an excellent ceremony, and that it got everybody into the mindset that, as Canadians of European ancestry, they were celebrating something that is not their own.
Chin is still hoping to hold a larger ceremony including more students and all the people who contributed to the project. The plan is to hold it in June of 2021, health and safety guidelines permitting.
There are some aspects of the garden that are not yet complete. There are plans to put up plaques and other signage within and around the space, with anecdotes of Indigenous history and culture. There is also a booklet of instructions on how to properly use the space that has yet to be created.
The garden will continue to be maintained by staff and students within the school. The Life Skills class, for example, regularly waters the cedars that were planted outside the garden.
Chin described one of her intentions with the garden, saying, “I thought [the garden would be] a platform for teachers to help indigenize their content.”
Vander Meulen is excited about the garden, as now with his Indigenous studies course, he will be able to incorporate some experiential learning, as opposed to the strictly theoretical: “There’s so much in [the] garden that I just cannot wait to use in my teachings.”
Chin said that the space can be used as a place for relaxation and self-reflection, as well as a good meeting place in the midst of the pandemic.
Robinson remarked, “For me, it’s nice to have somebody doing the work within the system that will be an example for other schools.”
Other projects like this are also in development at the moment, one of them being a vegetable garden which will be planted next to the medicinal garden. The vegetables grown will be ones that are native to North America, such as carrots, corn, beans, squash and parsnip.
There are also plans to construct a medicinal wheel from a nine foot wide circle of plywood, which will be hung in the foyer of the school, as part of a larger initiative conceived by Chapman to create an interactive Indigenous knowledge learning center. Peterman was tasked with handling the technical side of the project, and he got to the point of sourcing materials before COVID-19 interfered.
Chapman also spoke to what the garden might represent to the school: “It’s helping WCI honor the land in which the school sits on. Because, we are on Treaty Land; it’s not our land and it was not taken appropriately […] it helps us understand the connection between the land and the school.”
He also explained that when it comes to controversial issues within the school, some are more comfortable talking about them than others: “Whether it’s racialized issues, whether it’s Indigenous issues, there’s going to be a group of staff that are more comfortable with talking about those issues, and there are going to be some people that are still hesitant.”
He went on to say, “Both are okay, because we’re all on this continuum of understanding: some of us are a little further down the path than others.” But he emphasized that regardless of where one is on that spectrum, people should not shy away from those conversations.
Speaking to the impact and significance of the garden to the school, Robinson explained that the garden will help the school with inclusivity: “It makes Indigenous students feel more connected to the school when these projects happen.”
“This is just one way to say okay, we recognize that maybe we’ve misstepped somewhere, and here’s one way that we’re gonna try to get back on track.”
Featured photo was taken by Ms. Klassen.FOLLOW FJORD: