Nathan Phillips Square had been slated as the site for a new indigenous spirit garden. What is that? Centred around a large sculpture of a turtle, the area will be “a place of teaching, learning, sharing and healing, with plans to incorporate various public programs in the future”. Standing two metres tall, the turtle sculpture by Anishinaabe artist Solomon King, represents Turtle Island, also referred to as Mother Earth. The turtle will be depicted as climbing over a one-metre-tall boulder, elevated on a platform. The platform will name Ontario’s 17 residential schools and we can expect the Spirit Garden to be completed by 2023.
A Collection of Culture
The city aims to have the garden incorporate First Nations, Inuit and Métis culture through the inclusion of a teaching lodge, amphitheatre, a Three Sisters teaching garden, a voyageur canoe and an inuksuk. The Three Sisters is story about the role of beans, squash, and corn in indigenous agriculture. The spirit garden will also incorporate the White Pine, or Tree of Peace, a key element of the Kuswenta, also known as the Two Row Wampum, which lays the foundation for all relations in Indigenous culture. The city hopes that the garden will create a peaceful, contemplative space to help advance reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.
Honouring Indigenous Residential School Children
That the garden honours survivors of Canada’s residential school is a timely and welcome development. As Canadians have been grappling with the discovery of a mass grave of hundreds of Indigenous residential school children, many have started to recognize an uncomfortable fact. While many organizations and events have begun to address the genocide of Canada’s Indigenous people in the form of land acknowledgments, the brutal nature of Canadian colonialism remains hidden from the popular consciousness. There are very few physical reminders of what’s happened.
By design, Toronto erases the presence and history of its Indigenous people as at maintains architectural styles, statues, and street names that reflect a culture that has been imposed on stolen land.
Is Toronto Doing Enough?
It’s good that an effort to confront colonialism is taking permanent physical space in the city but we can’t forget that there is plenty of available space to serve a more immediate need. The City has allocated two million dollars of funding from Section 37 community benefits towards building the garden. Section 37 of the Planning Act allows cities to permit developers to build taller buildings in exchange for contributions toward things like public art and park space. Much of this development comes from condo construction.
Toronto has more active construction cranes than any other city in North America and yet, a 2017 estimate suggests that around 65,000 of Toronto’s condo units were empty. In 2018 it was estimated that there were around 8700 people experiencing homelessness at a given time with Indigenous Torontonians making up 15% of that number. Indigenous people make up .5% of the total population. While the creation of a public space for healing, reflection and commemoration is valuable in a city that is colonial to its bones, more can and should be done. While appropriating some garden space for Indigenous people is valuable, can we not also make space to house them?