Healing forests: seeking a just future through reconciliation

A sketch from the Winnipeg healing forest design plan by Shaun Finnigan, prepared in collaboration with the St. John’s Healing Forest Steering Committee and Community Elders, and used with permission.
Patricia Stirbys is one of the instigators of the National Healing Forest Initiative as a way forward with reconciliation.
Peter Croal of Old Ottawa East is seeking reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous communities through healing forests via a National Healing Forest Initiative.

by Jennifer Humphries

Trees are at the centre of a national movement aimed at coming to terms with our country’s legacy of injustice to First Nations peoples and helping to build genuinely equal relationships.

The National Healing Forest initiative urges communities across Canada to create their own greenspaces dedicated to reconciliation. Specifically, the project seeks to help people across the country recognize the legacy of residential schools and begin to make a future where indigenous peoples are respected and included, where we all engage together and abandon the “us and them” divide that characterized our history.

“We want to see people coming together outdoors to learn, reflect and honour,” said Peter Croal in our recent conversation. “So much of the work on residential school issues has been done inside buildings, such as hospitals, churches and courts. But it’s in nature that the real healing can happen.”

The idea is to create a dedicated natural place where people can come to meditate, heal, talk and learn. It’s about internalizing the realities of the residential schools legacy – the terrible suffering caused – and reflecting on ways to support the healing. Some people will just come to relax and meditate more generally: that’s just fine too. But the hope is that simply spending time in this space will yield a deeper connection to the issues and involvement in the onward path.

Croal is a geologist and photographer based in Old Ottawa East whose 35-year career has taken him from the Arctic to Fogo Island, Newfoundland and Labrador and a range of developing countries. Throughout his work, he has engaged with indigenous peoples. Croal’s fortuitous meeting with Patricia Stirbys led to their decision to partner on the Healing Forest Initiative during the Healing Walk held in Ottawa in June 2015 prior to the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report. Stirbys, who holds a Master of Laws from the University of Ottawa, lives in Toronto and is a member of the Cowessess First Nation (Saskatchewan). She is dedicated to fostering positive relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous communities. “When we first started to talk about it,” Stirbys said, “it resonated with me. I was excited about the potential for connecting healing forests from coast to coast to coast.”

Of the TRC’s 94 calls to action, many are clearly aimed at governments and institutions, but Croal says others are directed to all Canadians. Certainly the spirit of the TRC’s work suggests the participation of all Canadians. (If you’d like to know where we stand on implementing the 94 actions, see the CBC’s online site: CBC Beyond 94.)

Over 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were taken from their families beginning in the 1870s and placed in schools, often far from home. Many were abused. Six thousand are known to have died in these schools and it is estimated that the number is closer to 10,000. A vast number of indigenous individuals and families were affected by the trauma inflicted by the schools by the time the last school closed in 1996. Impacts continue in subsequent generations.

For Croal and Stirbys, the past must not be forgotten but must not overshadow the present. What’s important now is to build a path to reconciliation and a future of equality and justice for all.

And trees, the symbol of ever-renewed life, the lungs of the planet, are “just the thing” to support such a path.

Croal says trees can honour the spirits of the children who were sent to residential schools, the many who died, the many who survived but who live with permanent physical and psychological scars. He puts it this way: “There were people from generations before me who didn’t take care of these children in a respectful way. Now we propose to care for trees to honour the children who didn’t survive the residential school experience or who now live with trauma stemming from their time in the schools away from their families.” Patricia adds, “Sadly, multiple generations within a family still struggle to heal from this trauma.”

Several cities and towns have come on board. Among the first were Winnipeg, where an existing park slated for redevelopment will host a healing space, and Edmonton. There’s no template for a healing forest. It’s up to individual community groups to consider their particular situation and how they can best provide a healing greenspace. Simplicity is fine: in nearby Perth, a large rock on the banks of a river has been designated as a healing space and bears a memorial plaque.

A critical factor is engaging members of local indigenous groups with the broader community from the outset. “The committee process is a form of reconciliation in itself,” said Croal.

Will it work here in the Glebe? Rev. Teresa Burnett-Cole, pastor at Glebe-St. James United Church, thinks so. “A connection with the land is a huge step forward toward reconciliation,” she told me. “What we find in our indigenous study group is that members default toward doing something. They want to “fix it.” But the TRC was saying that we can’t “fix it” but rather we need to educate ourselves so that it will never happen again.”

Patricia agrees: “Indigenous communities don’t want to be studied or “fixed.” We have a history in Canada that many still do not understand. Through really listening, together we will reconcile this painful past in a good way.”

Not long ago Glebe Collegiate Institute’s student environmental group, TWIGS, proposed a central sculpture by an indigenous artist and a redesigned garden conducive to learning, discussion and meditation. Maybe it’s time to revisit that concept. Or to look at a local park where the community at large can acknowledge the need for reconciliation and offer residents and visitors a peaceful place to reflect and rest.

The co-creators of the project do not manage the process but are ready to share experiences to help communities move forward with their own healing forest. They can be reached through the website: www.nationalhealingforests.com.

Jennifer Humphries is co-chair of the Glebe Community Association’s Environment Committee. You can contact her at environment@glebeca.ca.

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