Anishnabeg Outreach volunteers were busy this week harvesting food and medicine grown over the summer in the organization’s spirit garden.
The garden began in the spring in partnership with St. Mary’s Catholic Church in downtown Kitchener. It is located on Spitzig Road, next to Woodland Christian High School in Breslau.
A variety of foods like tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupes, peppers, squash and pumpkins have been planted in the four-hectare garden.
Near the bottom of the garden, where it joins the edge of the forest, traditional medicinal plants such as sweetgrass, sage and tobacco were also grown.
“It’s probably the most important part of the garden. It’s the part that I consider sacred,” Stephen Jackson, CEO of Anishnabeg Outreach, said during his tour of the site.
Special crops grown in the garden were tobacco and squash share a deep connection to the history of the area. Jackson said the seeds were propagated and once cultivated by indigenous communities in the area hundreds of years ago.
“The strain of tobacco we have is actually from 1,000 year old tobacco. I was gifted by the [Ken Seiling Region of Waterloo Museum]which started the spread,” he said.
“They arrived in a sealed jar dug in an archaeological site and they spread some seeds. It worked and now it’s spreading in the area. It’s amazing, tobacco from hundreds of years ago. “
Pumpkin seeds, nicknamed “the old squash”, have also been propagated by the museum. This particular squash was a staple food for Indigenous people, Jackson said.
“When we planted them, we didn’t know whether they were going to grow or not because of the weather and everything,” he said.
To their surprise, dozens of ancient gourds have sprouted and now the group has seeds for next year’s harvest.
Growing relationships are part of reconciliation
The garden is sometimes called the garden of reconciliation. For Jackson, reconciliation means developing relationships and partnerships with the wider community.
“The garden was not for making money or food,” he said.
“It was about bringing people together. It was about giving great organizations like RBC, Neighborhood Group Of Companies, Catholic churches and other churches an opportunity to do something different. An opportunity to participate to reconciliation”
The four-hectare garden is located on land owned by the Diocese of Hamilton. Toby Collins, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, said he and Bishop Douglas Crosby are eager to build a relationship with the local Indigenous community on the ground.
“They gave us an opportunity. In the past, we were the ones who caused a lot of trouble and here they are reaching out to us saying, ‘Can we heal together? “, Collins said.
“To me it’s a metaphor for how we come into truth and reconciliation. There’s a lot of weeds out there and if we all put in and pull out as many weeds as we can and plant new things for the present and the future, I think we are going to be okay.”
Give back to the community
Food grown in the garden goes to Anishnabeg Outreach Spiritual Baskets, which support more than 450 Indigenous families in the area. Ancient squash will be part of that batch, Jackson said.
“I can’t wait to imagine the smiles on everyone’s face when they eat something that indigenous people grew and ate hundreds of years ago to survive and it gives back to families in need,” did he declare.
Squash also tastes great, he adds. He describes the taste as similar to a spaghetti squash “minus the vein”.
Part of the squash will also be used by the leaders of the Neighborhood Group Of Companies for a charity dinner the group is hosting for Anishnabeg Outreach on October 17.
The restaurant group’s CEO, Court Desautels, said the relationship with Anishnabeg Outreach goes back many years and staff regularly visit the spirit garden.
“We are still trying to figure out where we belong through truth and reconciliation and the garden opportunity has presented itself. There are a lot of conversations we need to have and there is no better way to have conversations around the dinner table,” he said.
Desautels said the dinner will feature Indigenous ingredients from across the province and the country. All proceeds will go to Anishnabeg Outreach.
“I am hopeful that we will achieve reconciliation. It is not something that will happen overnight. It may not happen for 100 years, but there will be relationships that will be built” , did he declare.
“It really starts with something as simple as stepping out into a garden.”