Planting seeds of hope and empowerment

Ininew Friendship Centre Executive Director Susan Nelson (left) and Cultural Resource Coordinator Mary Jane Archibald.
Ininew Friendship Centre Executive Director Susan Nelson (left) and Cultural Resource Coordinator Mary Jane Archibald.  Submitted by Susan Nelson.

On the surface, gardening is simple—plant seeds, water them, harvest a crop. But digging deeper, one finds layers of complexity and hard work that are necessary to keep a garden thriving. The folks at the Ininew Friendship Centre in Cochrane, Ont., are ready to learn by experience as they break ground on an ambitious community garden project.

Mary Jane Archibald is the Cultural Resource Coordinator at the Ininew Friendship Centre. (Ininew means “the people” in the Cree language.) Like the many Friendship Centres across Canada, this Centre is Indigenous-run and offers support and programming for Indigenous folks living in urban areas. Mary Jane had an idea for her community to learn how to garden together, recognizing the spiritual significance that the land has traditionally held for Indigenous peoples. “We come from the land in our traditional teachings,” reflects Mary Jane. “The land is a healing part of us.”

Susan Nelson, executive director of the Ininew Friendship Centre, also has a close connection to the land. “I grew up loving the garden—I loved eating fresh peas,” recalls Susan, who grew up on a farm. “If anyone was wondering where I was, they’d say ‘go look in the garden.’” So when Mary Jane came to her with a dream for a community garden, Susan was all for it.

Not long after this, Lyndsay Mollins Koene, MCC’s Indigenous Neighbours program coordinator, called Susan to ask if the Friendship Centre could use a cold frame greenhouse*. Needless to say, Susan was elated by Lyndsay’s offer. “When Lyndsay called talking about greenhouses and if we’d be interested, it was just perfect timing.” A greenhouse can add a month or more to both ends of the growing season. This allows communities to grow and ripen vegetables like tomatoes on the vine for longer, which increases nutrition and flavour.

Caribou potatoes
A harvest of potatoes last year at North Caribou Lake First Nations. Photo by Lyndsay Mollins Koene.

MCC has had a decades-long relationship with the Ininew Friendship Centre, and Lyndsay and Susan’s friendship goes back many years. The greenhouses are part of MCC’s Sowing Reconciliation program, an initiative that began at the request of remote northern Indigenous communities to help First Nations “grow gardeners” to combat the exorbitant cost of food in remote communities and promote food sovereignty. MCC sends community gardening kits including tools and seeds, which the Ininew Friendship Centre will also receive this spring. The program is now in its fifth season and is expanding to more communities every year, including urban communities like Cochrane (eight hours north of Toronto with a population of approximately 5,300). Although many Indigenous people are moving south to seek employment, education, and housing, challenges remain. One in three Indigenous families in urban centres are food insecure and one in four live below the poverty line.

Mary Jane recognizes the community garden as a way for folks to overcome some of those food insecurity challenges. “Providing for your family, that’s very empowering... It’s also a chance to work together as a family, where the parents are also learning [with the children].”

True to her own message of empowerment, Mary Jane did not waste time getting the garden started. “I thought, ‘If I make the garden, the people will come,’” she said with a smile. Her faith was soon rewarded as a young man pulled up alongside the garden as she was digging up soil and asked if she needed help.

Luke and Mary Jane
Luke Dinan and Mary Jane discussing next steps at the community garden in fall of 2020. Submitted by Luke Dinan.

This friendly stranger was Luke Dinan, co-owner of nearby Grey Wolf Gardens, a farm focusing on organic and regenerative food-growing practices. “It was a remarkable bit of good luck to meet Mary Jane the way we did,” says Luke, who had recently started Grey Wolf Gardens with his partner. “We feel very blessed to be participating in this project!” Luke immediately began helping Mary Jane prep the soil for the winter with mulch and organic material so that it would be ready for planting in the spring.

Though the Ininew Friendship Centre has high hopes for the garden, Mary Jane and Susan are approaching the garden project with a spirit of humility. “We need to humble ourselves to work with the land and accept what is,” reflects Mary Jane. “We can’t always control what happens. We have to be respectful of the land and do our best to work together with it.”

Susan sees the garden as an opportunity for the whole community to connect with the land, with their food, and with each other. “We hope that everybody will participate to support one another and share in the abundance.”

MCC’s Sowing Reconciliation program continues to assist Indigenous communities with food security in different regions of Ontario, including providing Garden Kits to 13 communities. This season, two organizations in urban Indigenous settings will receive cold frame greenhouses. Food interruptions and scarcity in northern and remote regions of the province during COVID-19 have made the Sowing Reconciliation program more vital than ever for Indigenous communities providing for their families. Join us in supporting communities with this basic need.

* Mennonite Central Committee Ontario (MCC) would like to recognize the partnership of United Way Centraide North East Ontario (UWCNE) for their continued effort to reach out to marginalized populations in the region.  Their committed work with MCC and with First Nations community members throughout Treaty Nine is is admirable.  

Working in partnership with the Ininew Friendship Centre in Cochrane and Misiway Milopemahtesewin Health Centre in Timmins, MCC was able to support these two Indigenous Land Based Programs with greenhouses, thanks to funding from UWCNE.