UHN’s first Indigenous healing garden is taking root at The Michener Institute of Education at UHN.

From design to implementation, the garden – located at the corner of Elm and McCaul Streets in downtown Toronto – is Indigenous-led, following the practices and protocols for planting a Gitigan (the Anishinaabemowin word for garden) that have been passed down through generations.

The Gitigan is a place to grow plants native to the area, traditional medicines and many plants used by Indigenous nations for their healing properties to help improve physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.

“This project has me so excited,” says Ashley Migwans, Program Coordinator, Indigenous Health & Population Health and Social Medicine, UHN.  “The garden is a place to reflect and honour our Indigenous culture, our history, our stories, our language, our traditional medicines and how all of that is interconnected within the healthcare and education system, the teachings and values.”

In the past, the location of the healing garden has been used as a flower garden, overseen by Michener’s Director of Facilities, Paul Martin, who said each year annuals were planted.

Paul said he connected with the Indigenous Health Program after a student alerted him to a dogwood plant in the garden and its uses in Indigenous culture and medicine – from pipe ceremonies to relief from poison ivy.

“That discovery got the ball rolling,” says Paul. “So I told them, ‘I have a garden, I have a budget – there’s no barrier.'”

From there, a group was formed to design and plant UHN’s first Indigenous healing garden. The group includes Ashley, experienced Indigenous Earth Worker Kateri Gauthier – who was recruited to design the layout – as well as the Energy and Environment team and Paul’s team at Michener, who are part of the Facilities Management-Planning, Redevelopment & Operations Department (FM-PRO) at UHN.

(L to R) Lisa Vanlint, Energy Steward at UHN, Indigenous Earth Worker Kateri Gauthier, Paul Martin, Director of Facilities at Michener, Miinikaan co-founder Lara Mrosovsky, and Ashley Migwans, Indigenous Health & Population Health and Social Medicine, UHN. The group got together to plant the Indigenous Healing Garden earlier this month. (Photo: UHN)
(L to R) Lisa Vanlint, Energy Steward at UHN, Indigenous Earth Worker Kateri Gauthier, Paul Martin, Director of Facilities at Michener, Miinikaan co-founder Lara Mrosovsky, and Ashley Migwans, Indigenous Health & Population Health and Social Medicine, UHN. a group of volunteers, including members of the UHN Green Team got together to plant the Indigenous Healing Garden earlier this month. (Photo: UHN)

The process began with Kateri visiting the site to ask Shkagamik-Kwe (Mother Earth)for permission to move forward with the project.

“One of the first things I did was hold tobacco in my hand and ask for permission to be here in this space. I told her what our intentions were and asked for guidance to begin our work in a good way,” says Kateri.

Once she received that permission – which can come internally from a place of stillness – she knew the planning process could begin.

While the working group wanted to incorporate the four sacred medicines: tobacco, sage, sweetgrass and cedar, Kateri prayed again for guidance on the rest of the plants to include.

“The process that I followed, it was really in connection with spirit,” says Kateri.

Read more on UHN.ca

Tips on visiting UHN’s new Indigenous healing garden

  • The garden is open for anyone to enjoy – all are welcome.
  • Do not pick the plants, medicines or flowers.
  • Learn about the plants and their medicinal purposes: “Have reverence for the plants, for all that they bring and see them as having a spirit, as being alive and not just inanimate objects. They’re sentient beings, talk to them,” suggests Kateri. You may be surprised when they talk to you!
  • Educate yourself on the Gitigan by using the educational plaques and QR codes.
  • Make sure you’re “in the right frame of mind,” says Kateri. Be aware of the energy you’re bringing into the space and what you’re leaving behind. 
  • Questions? Connect with Indigenoushealth@uhn.ca

Story by Larissa Cahute