A new Indigenous healing garden (artist’s rendering) is slated to be ready by 2023. Photo courtesy of Council Fire

Garden project at Toronto City Hall part of province’s TRC commitments

  • September 19, 2020

An Indigenous garden project underway in Toronto looks to bring hope and light to the province in the journey towards healing from the dark past of residential schools.

To be installed at Nathan Phillips Square outside Toronto City Hall, the Indian Residential School Survivor Legacy (IRSS) initiative in partnership with Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre (Council Fire), the Province of Ontario and the City of Toronto will be a site for traditional Indigenous ceremonies, gatherings, education, contemplation and the building of good relations.

“The name of the project is the Restoration of Identity and the reason that name was chosen is because the project tackles the legacy of Indian residential schools where Indigenous identities were displaced,” said Theo Nazary, strategic planner at Council Fire. “These schools were created with a goal to ‘keep the Indian out of the child.’ Our project looks at repairing and strengthening those identities again.”

This IRSS Legacy project is part of the province’s commitment to fulfilling the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) call to action number 82 which calls on “provincial and territorial governments, in collaboration with survivors and their organizations, and other parties to the settlement agreement, to commission and 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 space, which is also being called a spirit garden, was designed in consultation with First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities in Ontario to ensure the design is as inclusive as possible and features cultural elements representative of the various Indigenous groups. 

Though there is still a long way to go before the garden is complete, the project has made significant progress which includes the completion of the centre display which features a 10-tonne turtle carved out of Indiana grade limestone. The boulder beneath the turtle will list the names of the residential schools in Ontario.

“The boulders represent the experience of the residential schools and the turtle is climbing out over them and emerging into new life,” said Fr. Bert Foliot. “Instead of emphasizing the destruction that happened in the residential schools for so many, and the destruction that happened through the missing and murdered Indigenous women and ‘Sixties’ Scoop’ (where Indigenous children were taken from their families and communities for placement in foster homes or adoption). Instead you have the hope and the newness that the turtle is emerging to, and that’s what is going to be celebrated at City Hall.”

Foliot, a Jesuit priest who spent years working and living with the Indigenous community on Manitoulin Island, and Jack Panozzo, who manages the social justice and advocacy program with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto, have been part of the multi-faith Restorative Relations Working Group which meets once a month in support of the garden initiative. Foliot says given the history of the Church’s contribution to the painful legacy of residential schools, it was vitally important for the Catholic Church to be at this table as part of the journey towards healing.

“I have learned so much from Indigenous people including how to give thanks to the Creator for all that we have been given,” said Foliot. “Indigenous wisdom is something that modern society needs in order to understand gratefulness and respect for creation. They are resilient people and may get down, but they teach us how to come back up. The spirit garden I think will open up a new wisdom and new life for many people who come and visit there.”

Solomon King, the Anishinaaabe artist who spent 10 months in 2019 carefully carving the turtle, believes the display will be an important symbolic piece in the journey towards healing the nation.

“It’s just about getting people to understand that there’s more than one history out there,” said King. “I know as a people we have gone through a lot of hardships, but there’s also a pretty bright future, so that’s, that’s really what I want to look at.

“We have to reconcile with our past, but then we also have to move on and figure out how we can do this together.”

The City of Toronto has committed $6 million to cover all below ground preparation at the site including mechanical work, waterproofing, piping and electrical work connected to above surface elements. The province has contributed another $1.5 million, which went directly towards the cost of the central turtle element, and Council Fire so far has been able to raise an additional $1.5 million. In total the project is expected to cost $15 million to complete with Toronto Council Fire continuing to raise funds for the project, expected to be completed in early 2023.

“This Restorative Relations Working Group has been very supportive, and the Catholic members have been strong advocates for this project,” said Nazary. “We’ve made presentations at bishops’ conferences and to different parishes who have contributed support. The Catholic community has been a tremendous help with fundraising for this project.”

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