The article below is a summary of a workshop held on September 9, 2022, led by Carolynne Crawley at the Michener Gitigan (south east corner of McCaul and Elm streets) in Toronto.

Upcoming* related event: National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

  • Date: Friday, September 30
  • Time: 9:30 – 11 AM
  • Place: Michener Gitigan (SE corner of McCaul and Elm), outdoors, in-person
  • How to attend: no RSVP required; the event is open to all

Workshop start: calling out name calling

As kids we were taught to not call names. Names can hurt. And they shape how we see the world—for better or worse.

Weeds. Invasives. Poison Ivy. Stinging Nettle. These names place a negative lens on plants. In Indigenous thought, plants are our older siblings. They evolved on earth before us and have been thriving for millennia without us. Because of this, they have a lot to teach us.

But we limit how we see them when we call them names.

That’s one of the first insights that Carolynne Crawley, a Mi’kmaw environmental justice advocate and an educator from Miinikaan, shares as we begin the workshop.

We’re outside on a warm and sunny morning enjoying the shade at the Michener Gitigan (the Anishinaabemowin word for garden). The Gitigan was planted in 2021 and has become an important space to learn, reflect and honour Shkagamik-Kwe (Mother Earth).

Photo of the Michener Gitigan, including the entry sign, which lists best practices and garden etiquette.

We form a large circle comprising individuals from all walks of life, including UHN staff, research associates, a scientist from Mount Sinai hospital, Michener trainees, and others.

Carolynne asks us to tell a story about plants. At first everyone seems shy. But just as the sun rises on the woodland strawberry plants on the west side of the garden, we are in heated discussion. We talk about the benefits of dandelions, our clashes with squirrels as we grow urban gardens, and our love of a tree that we planted for a loved one.

Woodland strawberry plants in the Michener Gitigan (photo: UHN)

Each story sheds a different light on our relationships with plants, other animals and the environment. Carolynne refers to these as the plant relatives, the winged-ones, the four-legged, the crawlers and the swimmers.

Again, language and words become a focus of the conversation; specifically, how we use the word ‘it’ to describe our plant and animal siblings. Referring to them in this way turns them into things, objects, commodities or even property.

When presented like this, the difference between Indigenous and western ways of seeing is striking. Recognizing this difference can lead to deep learnings… and uncomfortable truths about how western thought has shaped our current relationship with the environment. This relationship is in jeopardy and it is clear that we need to change course to avert uncontrolled climate change, and restore damaged soils and polluted waters.

These teachings bring to mind UHN’s vision, and our shared goal: A Healthier World.

Taking a new path—one towards a truly healthier world—will require work. While we use science to advance health through medical research, Indigenous ways of seeing and wisdom represent an important way to shine a light towards this goal.

Just as the noon sun hits the workshop participants, it becomes clear that pairing scientific knowledge with indigenous wisdom, known as ‘Two-Eyed Seeing’, has never been needed more than now.

Our plant siblings: loving underappreciated ‘weeds’

Carolynne offered a number of resources (pictured below) for learning about identifying plants, including harvesting them safely and responsibly. These resources outline important principles that should be considered before picking or eating any wild plants.

Note that visitors are asked to refrain from picking plants at the Michener Gitigan.

As we began looking at all the plants at the Michener Gitigan, we saw a number of lesser-known plants and learned of some of their traits and uses.

We met the plant known as dock (above), who is also called lemon leaf. Yes, the plant really does taste like lemon. (Photo by Sten Porse)

Wood sorrel (above) is a small plant with big flavour—one that can be described as zippy and citrus-forward. You may think this plant looks like clover because of the three centrally connected leaves.

A good way to them apart is that the leaves are heart-shaped, while clover leaves are not.

Sweetgrass (above, right), known as Óhonte Wenserákon in the Mohawk (Kanien’keha) language, has a vanilla smell when cut. This plant is one of the sacred plants. An ACS conference proceeding suggests that sweetgrass may serve as an effective bug repellent.

The impressive autumn bloom from goldenrod (above) serves as a haven for native insects and the plant has medicinal properties when used as a tea.

The flowers from pearly everlasting can be dried and kept as ‘everlasting’ flowers. The plant also has medicinal properties.

Garden cress, pictured above, is also known as ‘poor man’s pepper’. The plant has a mild pepper flavour, similar to nasturtium, and can be added to salads for a kick.

Ashley Migwans (L) and Carolynne Crawley (R) in the Michener Gitigan.

The event was organized by UHN’s Indigenous Health Program, the Michener Gitigan Committee (including members of UHN’s Energy and Environment team), and Miinikaan Innovation and Design.

For upcoming events, see the Talkin’ Trash Events webpage and sign up to this newsletter, Talkin’ Trash with UHN to get it delivered straight to your inbox.

To learn more about Carolynne Crawley’s consulting and advocacy initiatives, see below:

MSIT NO’KMAQ Staff Training & Wellness Programs:

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