The Nine Projects that Demonstrate the Power of Parks in 2021

“Parks alone cannot address climate change, racism, and public health challenges, but as the shared spaces in our cities they play a vital role in helping us learn to live together in a more resilient, equitable society.” Canadian City Parks Report, 2021

In 2021 our city parks became “the little (and big) places that could.” We saw how parks could provide safe and healthy respite from time spent indoors. We saw how parks could help us build more equitable and resilient communities that connect us to each other in times of global crises and in our daily lives. And, we witnessed the many ways parks could help us contribute to and re-centre our relationship with nature in cities.

This is the power of parks that can be fully realized when we invest in our urban green spaces, decolonize our thinking, and adopt upstream rather than downstream solutions that promote the well-being of people and the health of the planet.

 

Credit: Will Kwan, A Park for All, 2018, Text installation with Evergreen’s Public Art Program. Photo: Claire Harvie.

The power of parks is reflected in the nine initiatives that defined Park People’s work in 2021. Each of these demonstrates what’s possible when we stop seeing parks as “nice to haves” and truly recognize them as “must-have” infrastructure for Canadian cities.

Centring equity and resilience in city parks

Park People’s 2021 Canadian City Parks Report addressed how parks can foster more resilient, equitable cities—not only as we recover from COVID-19, but as we address another looming crisis: climate change. Featuring insights from a survey of nearly 3,500 Canadians, interviews with 40 leading experts and data and practices from 32 participating Canadian cities, the report’s findings are driving substantive change in Canada’s city parks.

Among the report’s many valuable insights were that

Research for the 2022 Canadian City Parks Report is already underway with a focus on how collaborative and equity-based approaches to parks can shift how we value and experience parks and urban natural spaces.

The ten greatest city park projects in Canada

Park People celebrated its ten-year anniversary with an outstanding collection of 10 park stories written by Canada’s best urbanist writers.

In the words of Dylan Reid, the series’ talented editor, “The projects we’ve explored came in all sizes, from a postage stamp of greenery in Etobicoke on the west side of Toronto to a vast agglomeration across the western edge of Montreal. Many are ribbons, following the path of old infrastructure and rivers; others are irregular patches carved out of unprepossessing spaces by creative imaginations.”

 

Credit: illustration by Jake Tobin Garrett

 

Wonderfully illustrated by Jake Tobin Garrett, the ten stories in the anniversary series demonstrate that the best parks and public spaces are led by communities and fuelled by the energy and support of municipalities, park professionals, community agencies and so many more.

Explore the ten stories in celebration of Park People’s 10 year anniversary.

Connecting communities to nature and each other

Nothing shows the unyielding commitment of Park People’s National Network of community park groups more than TD Park People Grant events. The 72 community groups that hosted more than 216 events in parks in 2021 are largely grassroots groups made up of volunteers.

 

Credit: 2021 TD Park People Grants, Art Bikers, Halifax, Nova Scotia by Carolina Andrade.

These local heroes are a force for good in their communities delivering innovative and uplifting programs from a truly magical repurposing of Christmas trees to creating an ephemeral forest in Montreal’s Jarry Park to a repair workshop borne out of a creative partnership between a Halifax arts organization and an Immigration Services agency.

This year’s TD Park People Grants have just launched. What project do you want to make happen in your park in 2022?

Expanding nature’s reach in cities

2021 is the year Park People launched its seminal Cornerstone Parks project, joining forces with Canada’s most iconic large park organizations – High Park Nature Centre, Stanley Park Ecology Society and Les amis de la montagne. These large, urban “Cornerstone Parks” are places to heal the earth and strengthen people’s relationship to nature. Consider that over ten years, Stanley Park Ecology Society volunteers dug deep and removed 8,000 m3 of invasive plants and replaced them with more than 8,000 individual native trees, shrubs, and grasses.

 

Credit: Les amis de la montagne

Through Cornerstone Parks, Park People is investing in the future of Canada’s large urban parks and spreading their impact and influence to cities across Canada. Stay tuned in 2022 for new announcements about the next Cornerstone Parks.

Sparking More Change in Parks

Established in 2013, Park People’s Sparking Change program continues to be rooted in the belief that,

“Parks are not simply green places of respite with grass and trees—they are critical pieces of the social infrastructure of our cities. And we believe they have a role to play in creating more inclusive, equitable places that are shaped by and for the people living there.”

In 2021, the Sparking Change program expanded beyond Toronto to Vancouver. While the Toronto Sparking Change program is focused on Toronto’s Neighbourhood Improvement Areas, in Vancouver, our work is focused on areas the Vancouver Park Board identified as lacking access to quality park spaces and park programming.

 

Credit: Hives for humanity, Vancouver

In 2021, we were delighted to work with exceptional Vancouver groups like Hives for Humanity which supports inclusion and builds belonging through work with beehives and Strathcona Community Garden promotes gardening and food security for gardeners from Vancouver’s Asian, Middle Eastern and Latino communities.

Creating a Climate Adaption Master Plan

In 2021, Park People’s Professional Services team continued to lead projects across the country. Between 2019 and 2021, Park People worked closely with CREDDO, the municipality of Gatineau, Quebec and others to support the development of an innovative master plan for the flood-damaged communities of Pointe-Gatineau and Lac-Beauchamp.

Climate emergencies are one of the most pressing realities facing Canadian communities today. Park People was able to offer a unique lens as a non-profit organization focused on improving people’s quality of life through parks and urban green spaces.

 

 

The Gatineau master plan was developed in collaboration with community partners and residents and features a toolbox of 25 unique land-use typologies, such as green spaces, community gardens and social spaces, all designed to be implemented by local residents based on their social and environmental needs. Throughout this project, Park People provided an innovative perspective to evaluate and leverage the social and environmental roles of urban parks and how to leverage them in the context of community change and crisis.

Bringing ravines into view

Toronto’s ravines are glorious, often hidden treasures. While they may be visible to some communities, too often they are underutilized by Toronto’s equity-seeking groups that can benefit from greater access to these lush and expansive green spaces. The City of Toronto engaged Park People to support the community engagement plan connected to the city’s first-ever Ravine Strategy.

In 2021, InTO the Ravines, delivered in partnership with the City of Toronto, trained and supported community-based “ravine champions” who led beginners into the urban wilds.

 

Credit: Ravine Entrance Mural, Rowntree Mills – Panorama Park

In 2021 the program engaged 800 participants in virtual and safe, socially-distanced events in and around the ravines. 54% of participants have never been in a Toronto ravine or have only visited a ravine once or twice a year. Over 96% of participants said that the event helped inspire them to explore Toronto’s ravines.

Montreal organizations band together to create new possibilities for parks

In 2021 Park People joined forces with four of Montreal’s most notable organizations to establish The Montreal Park People Network.

Officially launched at the 2021 Montreal Park Forum, Park People along with Montreal Urban Ecology Centre, le Conseil régional de l’environnement de Montréal and Les amis de la montagne have invested in understanding groups that make up Montreal’s park network and connected community park groups together to galvanize support for city parks.

 

 

The Forum was a huge success and featured keynote speakers from both New York and Montreal as well as a panel on environmental justice in parks. Watch out for another awesome Montreal Park Forum in 2022.

Launch of the 2022 Park People Conference

At the end of 2021, The Park People Conference was officially launched with a Call for Proposals on the theme of An Abundant Future for City Parks.

The hybrid conference, set for June 2022, will feature both virtual and in-person learning and networking events with a special spotlight on Vancouver’s parks and the people behind them. Registration for The Park People Conference will open in March 2022. It’s where to park thinkers and doers will be to build new collaborations and opportunities for Canada’s city parks.

 

 

Reflections on a park journey

This contribution from Dylan Reid is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 


 

Editing this series has taken me on a fascinating virtual journey to remarkable park projects across Canada. It was a particular joy to “travel” in this way at a time when physical travel is fraught and limited. Through the evocative writing of our contributors, I got to experience creative, enterprising initiatives that I am eager to visit in person when travel becomes easier. Even within my own city of Toronto, the projects featured here span the entire length of the city, north, west and east, and provide future destinations for exploration.

These articles also introduced me to the remarkable range of people – citizens, activists, artists, designers, and planners – who have come together to initiate and shape these projects. Not the least, I was honoured to work with a range of committed urbanist writers, some of them favourite authors I was pleased to reconnect with, and others I discovered thanks to this project, each of whom brought their own insight, experience and local knowledge to the story they told.

The projects we’ve explored came in all sizes, from a postage stamp of greenery in Etobicoke on the west side of Toronto to a vast agglomeration across the western edge of Montreal. Many are ribbons, following the path of old infrastructure and rivers; others are irregular patches carved out of unprepossessing spaces by creative imaginations.

Of necessity, this range is just a sampling of the innovative projects taking place in parks across the country, and over the course of the series the choice of projects to be featured evolved. But our writers referenced many comparable park initiatives elsewhere in Canada as they explored these projects in depth, and for highlights of other inspiring projects, readers can refer to Park People’s annual Canadian City Parks Report.

The stories featured in this series have been more than enough, however, to stimulate some reflections on how Canadian parks are evolving and identify some common themes in the stories we’ve featured. Working on this series has revealed to me how Canada’s urban parks are dynamic and ever-changing, activated and shaped by the communities they serve.

 

Past and Future

 

Emilie Jabouin opens her article about Black Creek Community Farm with a Haitian saying that means “the work is continuous and ongoing.” And indeed, these articles have captured the way parks are continuously evolving.

 

Credit: Black Creek Community Farm Entrance

 

A goal of this series marking the tenth anniversary of Park People was to explore the past and future of urban parks in Canada. By taking this approach, our writers have been able to convey the arc of these parks over time, sharing the story of the origins of these parks and programs, where they stand in the current moment, and the future visions that build on those foundations.

Jillian Glover recounts how, as a child, she turned the neglected Arbutus corridor into a space to play. Currently, the City of Vancouver has turned it into a simple public space where people can travel and artists can experiment. And its popularity has provided the basis for future plans to develop a series of unique anchor points to support a range of activities for neighbours and visitors.

All of the parks in this series have been captured by our writers somewhere in this kind of mid-evolution. In the Meadoway, as Shawn Micallef writes, travellers on bike or foot can see the stages of planting that are transforming lawn into native meadow. In Calgary, children and adults are just breaking in new play structures. In Etobicoke, MABELLEarts is creating permanent new programs in response to the pandemic. In Edmonton, a ground blessing has set the stage for construction, while in Montreal and Quebec City, communities, city staff, and designers are putting together a roadmap for the future.

That presence of a transformative future vision, built on the past and present, is what unites all of the projects featured in this series.

MABELLEarts, kihciy askiy, and Black Creek Community Farm plan new buildings as a focus for their communities that will, as Kelly Boutsalis writes, “[put] down seeds for what they hope will be more beautiful community engagement for years to come.”

 

Credit: Painting the road as a tactical intervention, 2017. Photo courtesy of Ali McMillan.

 

Flyover Park envisioned a community resource in a neglected underpass, Vancouver’s fieldhouse program envisions ever more creative uses for old buildings, and the Meadoway envisions a new ecosystem. Montreal and Quebec City aim for connected green networks that will be, in Chris DeWolf’s words, a “generational project” of “staggering scope, complexity and ambition.”

By their very nature as a habitat for plants and animals, parks are not static, but rather always growing and changing. And what this series teaches is that the people who use parks, too, are constantly shaping and transforming them, sometimes instinctively and sometimes intentionally.

 

Learning

 

I have learned so much from this series because parks have a lot to teach us. It’s teaching that goes in many directions. At kihciy askiy, city staff learned about Indigenous values and processes, and non-Indigenous visitors will be able to learn about Indigenous culture.

As Lewis Cardinal told Emily Rendell-Watson, it will be “the place where we can do some teaching for non-Indigenous people, to welcome them to our ceremonies and to give them an introduction to our Indigenous worldviews and our history.”

 

Credit photo: kihciy askiy Ground Blessing ceremony, Teresa Marshall

 

At Black Creek Community Farm, children and newcomers learn about urban agriculture. In the Meadoway, residents learn about rewilding. At Flyover Park, students and local residents learned about planning and landscape design; but planners and designers also learned about tactical urbanism and the vision and enthusiasm of children.

As the City of Calgary’s Jen Mazer told Ximena Gonzalez, “We learned about the power of elevating different voices.”

In every project, professionals and communities absorbed desires and possibilities from each other.

The learning extends beyond individual projects, too. Some of these projects are firsts, such as kihciy askiy and Vancouver’s fieldhouses, and all have innovations to share. Each project, as it develops, becomes a way for other cities to hear about the possibilities parks can offer – a process to which we hope this series can contribute.

 

Reinvention

 

In his introduction to this series, Ken Greenberg highlighted the need for cities to be creative in their use of space as they become more densely populated and open space becomes ever more precious. A theme throughout this series has been how communities have come up with ways to creatively re-invent neglected and underused spaces and infrastructure.

A “dingy field of gravel” under a Calgary flyover and a neglected parklet in Etobicoke become community resources. Long-abandoned farms on Montreal Island become wilderness conservation areas. A corner of ravine land in northern Toronto becomes a farm, while a former farm in Edmonton becomes a destination cultural centre. Rivers in Quebec City that were formerly a place to dump waste become a place for recreation instead.

 

Credit: Le Parc des Grandes-Rivières de Québec Map. Rousseau Lefebvre

 

Vancouver’s prosaic fieldhouses, no longer needed as residences, supply scarce affordable studio and non-profit office space – and in the process, give scope for artists to reinvent the park around them too, as play spaces, concert venues, and more. An abandoned railway in Vancouver becomes a different, much greener kind of transportation route. And remarkably, Toronto’s The Meadoway continues to be a corridor for power but becomes a corridor for humans and wildlife at the same time.
As Antonio Gomez-Palacio says of the Arbutus corridor, what were once back ends – the places we didn’t notice or even avoided looking at – have been reinvented to become a focal point for people and for nature.

 

Community

 

Local communities were the key catalysts of these transformations. These stories made me realize just how apt the concept of “grassroots” is when it comes to parks since they grow from the ground up both literally and metaphorically.

 

Credit: Mobile MABELLE. The photo was taken prior to March 2020. 

 

Sometimes the transformations began informally – people carving their own trails through abandoned farms at the western edge of Montreal and riversides in Quebec City, children and artists re-imagining an abandoned railway in Vancouver as a space to play. But most of the projects explored here were the product, initially, of the intentional hard work of a local community. A nearby neighbourhood in Calgary and in Montreal, the residents of towers in Toronto’s Jane-Finch area, riverside dwellers in Quebec City, a small artistic organization in Etobicoke, Indigenous organizations in Edmonton all initiated transformations of spaces. And even when initiatives come from more established institutions, community involvement has been crucial in giving these initiatives purpose and shaping their outcomes.

Cities may provide the soil, but it’s communities that provide the seeds that make that land flourish.

 

Connections

 

When communities transform spaces, they create connections. First of all, connections within the community itself, as members are brought together through their parks. Mabelle Park is a focal point for the surrounding public housing towers; Black Creek Community Farm for the Black community and new Canadians in its nearby towers. Kihciy askiy will bring together the many different Indigenous nations in and around Edmonton. Vancouver’s fieldhouses have a mandate to connect with the communities around them. The Arbutus corridor and The Meadoway, meanwhile, link multiple neighbourhoods.

 

Credit: Fieldhouse Norquay Park, courtesy of Fresh Roots

 

As Ken Greenberg writes, parks connect communities but also geographies. Calgary’s Flyover park and Quebec City’s rivers strategy connect neighbourhoods to nearby rivers from which they were long cut off. The Meadoway connects Toronto’s ravines, not just for people but also for plants and wildlife. Montreal’s Great Park of the West will connect multiple isolated natural areas into an integrated corridor.

Parks create more conceptual connections, too. They can connect people to the natural world, as in The Meadoway’s re-wilding, to the source of their food, at Black Creek Community Farm, and to the soil itself, symbolized by the ground blessing ceremony at kihciy askiy. And kihciy askiy connects its users to the past, through the area’s historical use by Indigenous peoples and the continuation of Indigenous traditions, and to a future of hoped-for reconciliation.

 

Collaboration

 

When communities connect, they collaborate to make things happen. It’s striking how collaboration is at the heart of all of the projects explored in this series.

In many cases, community organizations are the managers of the land, such as for kihciy askiy, Mabelle Park, and Black Creek Community Farm. Sometimes the parks are developed on land managed by independent agencies, such as the Toronto Community Housing Corporation for Mabelle Park or the Toronto Region Conservation Authority for Black Creek and The Meadoway. Other times an independent park agency is involved, as in Vancouver and Calgary. The Meadoway was started off with funding from a foundation, while Montreal’s Great Park of the West incorporates land belonging to a university. Flyover Park too involved partnerships with schools and universities. And all of these disparate groups work with local communities, municipalities, and national and international professional designers to make visions a reality.

 

Credit: the Meadoway. TRCA. 

 

Collaboration also takes the form of balancing different uses – recreation, conservation, agriculture, arts programming, industry, not to mention the plants and wildlife who have their own agenda.

As Micallef writes, a park is a “melding of the human and natural landscape.”

Such collaboration inevitably brings challenges – the time and patience it has taken to shepherd many of these projects is a testament to the work involved in coordinating many moving parts. But the collaboration also brings rewards – the richness of concept and enthusiasm of participants that comes through in these stories is a direct result of the many perspectives that came together to make them happen. And the buy-in that comes from developing these relationships is what ensures the long-term health of each project.

 

Conclusion

 

The parks featured in this series reveal vibrant and creative ways to think about creating green spaces in the city. As Greenberg notes, these are not what might be thought of as the stereotypical parks of the past – a few blocks of space set aside by the city or a philanthropic donor, provided with a few amenities and landscaping by the municipality, and then waiting passively to see who will come and use it.

In the parks in this series, many different people, organizations and institutions have come together to take an unprepossessing space and reclaim and re-imagine it. Together, they have created active spaces, ones that draw people in with farming, arts, teaching, nature and play to bring the park to life.

 

Credit: Fieldhouse Sharing Garden, courtesy of Fresh Roots

 

In the most recent issue of the magazine I edit, Spacing, I wrote about “city-growing” as an alternative concept to the well-worn idea of “city-building.” Taking a cue from nature, it’s about nurturing what emerges from the grassroots rather than imposing structures from above. Ecosystems, whether natural or social, are strongest when they develop organically, and the park projects explored in this series encapsulate that principle.

To reiterate what the City of Vancouver’s Marie Lopes told Christopher Cheung about that city’s fieldhouses,

“Stop thinking about your unused spaces as problematic. They’re opportunities. Look for collaborators where everybody wins. The community benefit is just boundless.”

 

 

 

 

About Dylan Reid

Dylan Reid is a senior editor at Spacing Magazine. He has also written articles for NOW magazine and the uTOpia books.

He was co-chair of the Toronto Pedestrian Committee 2007-2010, was one of the founders of the Toronto Coalition (now Centre) for Active Transportation and is a co-founder of Walk Toronto. Dylan is also a Fellow at the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies at the University of Toronto.

 


 

This contribution from Dylan Reid is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks.  The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 

‘Era of reconciliation’: Building kihciy askiy in Edmonton

This contribution from Emily Rendell-Watson is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 


 

How stakeholders collaborated to design the country’s first urban Indigenous cultural site

 

Edmonton, or Amiskwaciy Waskahikan, will soon be home to Canada’s first urban Indigenous ceremonial site.

Kihciy askiy, which means “sacred land” in Cree, is located in the heart of Alberta’s capital city on a 4.5-hectare site in Whitemud Park. The park is situated in Edmonton’s river valley and will be a spot where Indigenous communities can gather for ceremonies and sweat lodges, grow medicinal herbs, as well as facilitate learning for non-Indigenous people about Indigenous culture.

“We’re living in the era of reconciliation and as a part of that reconciliation we have to create positive relationships with settlers, so this is going to go a long way,” explained Lewis Cardinal, the project manager for the site from the Indigenous Knowledge & Wisdom Centre (IKWC).

“We deal with issues today like racism and discrimination, but a lot of that is based on ignorance, or simply not knowing people’s traditions and being led by misinformation. This gives an opportunity to provide that direct and personal interaction with (Indigenous culture).”

Cardinal added that it will be equally as important for the site to act as a hub for local Indigenous communities to come together, especially for those who are seeking healing from addictions, abuse, or other trauma.

“This is how we can help to transform these things into something very positive; strengthen people and strengthen relationships,” he said.

 

Access to cultural activities

 

The project, which is a partnership between the IKWC and the City of Edmonton, was initially proposed by Cardinal and elder William Campbell in 2006 with the aim to establish a place where Indigenous ceremonies could be held within the city.

 

Credit: Rendering of the view from the entrance to the pavilion building from the City of Edmonton

 

The land where kihciy askiy is being built on the west side of Edmonton is on what’s known as the old Fox Farms property, and historically was a place where Indigenous people would camp before entering the city, and pick saskatoons. Oral tradition talks about how across Whitemud Creek to the east of kihciy askiy is a large ochre deposit site, which is significant because ochre was an important part of Indigenous ceremonies in the past — it was mixed with berries and pigments to create colour.

The area was used off and on over the years for ceremonies, including an international Indigenous conference called Healing Our Spirit Worldwide. But each time the Indigenous community wanted to use the land, Cardinal said they had to apply for permission from the city — leading the elders counsel who guided the conference to wonder if it was possible to permanently have access to a plot of land in the urban centre.

Cardinal, Campbell, and a group of elders created a non-profit organization called the Edmonton Indigenous Cultural Resource Counsel to move the initiative forward and began to have more serious discussions with the city about how to make the project a reality.

Some were in favour of hosting ceremonies within the city, while others were against it, so in 2010 the organization decided to gather 120 Indigenous elders from across Alberta to discuss the opportunity over three days. The group also considered what specific ceremonies should be held in cities, and where they should be located.

“The response to the first question was, yes, we need to have ceremonies available to our families and our youth and our community in the urban centres because we know that in the near future, most of our people will be living in urban centres and they need access to these cultural activities and ceremonies in an environment that is embraced by Mother Earth,” Cardinal explained.

“In other words, you can’t have ceremonies in the parking lot of a Walmart.”

The project was eventually taken on by Native Counselling Services of Alberta (NCSA), which kicked off a process of continuous dialogue, and the establishment of the Counsel of Elders to work with the team during the design and construction of the site, as well as provide spiritual and cultural leadership for the project.

 

Credit photo: kihciy askiy Ground Blessing ceremony, Teresa Marshall

 

NSCA hosted grand council gatherings for Indigenous spiritual leaders in the Edmonton region at the Alfred H. Savage Centre in May 2015 and again in October 2018 to review and approve of the concept design, go over ceremony protocols for the site, and broadly discuss ceremonial and spiritual needs of the Indigenous community in the region.

In 2018, NCSA underwent a structural reorganization and the decision was made to move the project over to IKWC, recalls Cardinal, which is when he was asked to manage it on a full-time basis.

“The elders have always taught me that you bear responsibility for your dreams and visions. So if you’re bringing this dream and vision forward for yourself, or for a group of people, you still have that commitment to it. So it was quite lovely to get back in and start to work with the elders and bring it to this point,” Cardinal said.

One of those elders is Howard Mustus, chair of kihciy askiy’s Counsel of Elders, and traditional knowledge keeper. He said he hopes the project will help to minimize racism, as non-Indigenous people absorb and accept Indigenous traditions and culture.

“We encourage non-Indigenous people to come in and sit with us in our sacred circles and to learn more about indigenous law. That stems from the sanctioning of spirituality, which is very important to our people. That is the ultimate power and authority that dictates how we conduct ourselves and how we function as a society for caring and sharing in a holistic manner,” said Mustus.

 

Credit photo: kihciy askiy Ground Blessing ceremony, Teresa Marshall

 

A ground blessing (instead of a groundbreaking ceremony) was hosted in September 2021 to mark the beginning of construction and honour the relationship between all the stakeholders involved in the creation of kihciy askiy, which has a budget of $4.5 million. It was also an opportunity to “seek blessing from Mother Earth in allowing construction to take place,” which involved tying ribbons to a tree to signify connections and respect to the earth.

Construction on the land, led by Delnor Construction, officially began in mid-November and is expected to take 18 to 24 months to complete.

 

Engagement and collaboration

 

The relationships formed through the process have been key to kihciy askiy’s success thus far, including influencing how the site was developed.

Nav Sandhu, program manager with the City of Edmonton, said the social procurement aspect involved considering how potential contractors engage their teams or sub-trades to incorporate Indigenous communities. That meant hiring an Indigenous human resources coordinator and working with Indigenous-owned businesses to tackle the mechanical and landscaping aspects of the project.

“Social procurement is relatively new when you look at the construction industry, and it’s something that I think that we’re moving aggressively towards. It’s great to see the city be a leader in ensuring that the partners and the people that are going to be using it have a voice at the table to say (what’s going to benefit them),” said Sandhu. “Projects like these, where the social impact is so significant, take a lot of collaboration.”

The development process also involved getting consensus from representatives of the more than 50 Indigenous communities who will be able to use the site and adjusting several parkland policies to allow for development in Edmonton’s river valley and access to the area for Indigenous cultural activities.

As the owner of the land, the city will construct two buildings on kihciy askiy, which will house changing rooms, washrooms, a small classroom to host land-based education, a meeting space, and a storage facility. There will also be an outdoor amphitheatre.

Cardinal said the goal is to naturalize the space and “not make a huge footprint on the site.”

There will also be a teepee area, with enough space for 10-12 teepees or Métis trapper tents, to hold storytelling ceremonies.

 

Credit photo: kihciy askiy Tipi and site v2, Teresa Marshall

 

Two fire pit structures will be able to support two sweat lodges simultaneously, with space for up to eight in total. Sweat lodges offer a ceremonial space that’s integral to Indigenous culture, which is important because the Indigenous groups in the Edmonton region have many different traditions surrounding the purification practice.

“Sweat lodge holders have been taught differently from their ancestors, or the ones who’ve transferred that ceremony to them. So we have to make sure that there is accessibility for all of those users,” Cardinal explained.

Once kihciy askiy is complete, Indigenous people in Edmonton won’t have to travel out of the city to Paul Band, or Enoch or Alexander First Nation to participate in a sweat.

The third element will be a medicine garden, building off of the traditional medicines accessible in the river valley, which is one of the reasons the site was chosen. It will be used as a teaching area, as well as a place to harvest things like sage, tobacco, sweetgrass, and more for elders.

Finally, a multi-purpose space will offer an alternative locale for Indigenous ceremonies and other traditional structures that may need to be built for some First Nation traditions.

“It will also be the place where we can do some teaching for non-Indigenous people, to welcome them to our ceremonies and to give them an introduction to our Indigenous worldviews and our history. It’s a great opportunity to create those interfaces to teach people about things,” explained Cardinal, who added that there will also be what they’re calling an “open program” where sweat lodges will be open to the public.

“The whole site is intended to foster good relations, help Indigenous people reconnect to the land and the teachings that come from the land, as well as to their culture, traditions, and history.”

Indigenous organizations and agencies will also be able to use the site to deliver their own cultural programming.

Cardinal said the only other park site he knows of that is remotely similar to kihciy askiy is Jasper National Park’s Cultural Use Area, which is an area developed by the Jasper Indigenous Forum and Parks Canada for Indigenous partners to reconnect with the land, and host cultural learning and ceremonies.

The site, which has been used since June 2013, is not open to the general public.

 

‘A safe haven’

 

Once construction on kihciy askiy is complete, IKWC will run the site. People will be able to access it by various means of transportation, including bus, which was an important factor in solidifying the site location, said Cardinal.

Cardinal, Mustus, and Sandu all envision the site as an important pillar for the Indigenous community in terms of offering a way to uphold traditions within the Edmonton region. The partnerships that were key to developing the site will continue, and new ones will hopefully be formed between the Indigenous communities who use it and non-Indigenous people who are eager to learn.

“Kihciy askiy offers a safe haven for the community. I don’t think it’s going to be the last (project of this kind) — I think you’re gonna see a trend of these in the coming years … to bridge that gap,” Sandhu said.

“I think this is a significant step towards truth and reconciliation that needed to happen.”

 

 

 

 

About Emily Rendell-Watson

Emily RendellWatson is an Edmonton-based multimedia journalist who is currently the Editorial Lead & Community Manager of Taproot Edmonton, a publication that seeks to help its community understand itself better.

She writes about tech innovation, urban issues, climate change, and anything else that comes across her desk. When she’s not chasing a story, you can find her coaching speed skating or adventuring in the backcountry with her rescue dog, Abby. 

 


 

This contribution from Emily Rendell-Watson is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks.  The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 

A Tale of Two Parks

The summer of 2020 was in many ways, the summer of parks. Public health was promoting the optimistic message that being outdoors in parks made socializing safe. While the media ran with the message that parks are our safe spaces, Jenn Chan CEO, Co-Founder of The Department of Imaginary Affairs was becoming increasingly concerned that another story was being lost.

The Department of Imaginary Affairs (DIA) had received 2020 funding through Arts in the Parks to run a storytelling project in a Toronto park. DIA deferred the funding until 2021 and began reimagining how they could tell the story of two Toronto parks and feature the narratives of newcomers, immigrants and youth who identify as Black, Indigenous or People of Colour are at the centre.

DIA wanted to tell a story to highlight the vital role parks play in people’s lives and a story that takes an honest, unflinching look at parks as unsafe and unwelcoming places for newcomers, immigrants and youth who identify as Black, Indigenous or People of Colour. They decided to focus on two parks: Dentonia Park in East York and Edgeley Park in the Jane/Finch neighbourhood, both in Toronto’s inner suburbs.

 

Credit photo: The DIA Staff and Board participating in a Parks Future’s Design Lab, where we reflected on the land we take up space on and envisioned a better and safer future for parks in the Toronto area.

 

To centre these stories, DIA articulated a set of ambitious goals:

 

Foster a safe space for difficult stories

 

For A Tale of Two Parks DIA hired youth from two local communities and trained them in oral storytelling and techniques to connect with and build trust with the community. Working as Social Researchers the youth experimented with various engagement methods to learn more about the people who visit their park. One example of an intervention involved a Social Researcher sitting on a park bench holding up a sign asking a provocative question followed by the query: “want to change my mind?”

 

Credit photo: Program Caretaker Elvin and Social Researcher Ari participating in DIA’s Participatory Parks Planning Game in November 2021.

 

Over several weeks, the park goers became more comfortable with the Social Researchers, and eventually shared their stories about the park. They talked about what the park meant to them before COVID, its role during the pandemic, and the park they would hope to have in the future.

The Social Researchers observed that many of the newcomers, immigrants, and youth who identify as Black, Indigenous or People of Colour weren’t used to being encouraged to share their stories, they’d ask questions like: “Why do you want to know my story? Why does it matter?” It took patience and skill for the researchers to help local park-goers open up and feel safe talking about their park, and their vision.

 

Reimagine safer/braver spaces

 

The park stories of newcomers, immigrants and youth who identify as Black, Indigenous or People of Colour said volumes. Their stories told the researchers that while people in these communities love their parks, they often don’t feel like they have the power to improve them.

For example, in Edgeley Park, BIPOC youth voiced concern about the wood chips covering the playground–the wood chips were messy, got caught in their shoes and made the playground feel unwelcoming.

They asked: “Why can’t we have sand in the playground?”

A different story was coming through. While park users in these communities love and value their parks, they feel helpless about making them safer or welcoming for those who need them.

 

Credit photo: Social researcher Ari interviewing members of Shwasti, a Bengali Seniors Walking Group that meets at Dentonia Park to exercise and share space with one another, at Dentonia Park in August 2021. 

 

By surfacing this tension, A Tale of Two Parks highlights that parks in equity-seeking communities often occupy an uncomfortable both/and space. In these communities, parks are both free and open green spaces that can offer a sense of respite and comfort, and they are tied to a colonialist agenda that only provides individuals with privilege an opportunity to have a sense of control over the conditions that govern their lives.

This both/and space is, in Jenn’s words, the “scary and magical” place where DIA and the Tale of Two Parks researchers learned to find a connection.

Better represent communities

The thoughtfully edited recordings gathered for A Tale of Two Parks will be compiled and featured on DIA’s website, providing a platform for diverse narratives of the park users who want their stories to be heard & shared.

But that’s just the beginning.

DIA is committed to making sure that the stories generated within the two parks are widely accessible. They’re currently planning a visual and audio installation as part of DesignTO’s 2022 lineup. The installation centres around the question: “What if parks were safe for everyone?” and will feature written and audio stories, photographs, artwork and videos from ‘A Tale of Two Parks’ to, in their own words, “elevate and amplify the stories we had the privilege of hearing and seeing as well as reflections from our team about how this project shifted their own relationships with parks.”

The audio recordings and upcoming installation will help represent the stories of BIPOC communities who hold space for simultaneously loving their parks while resisting the enforcement, violence, and acts of hate and racism that in large part define their park experiences.

Feature photo credit: The youth at Edgeley Park participating in the Arts Event through the Youth Program our Social Researcher Delux facilitated in September 2021.  

TD Park People Grants Invite Creative Approaches to Connecting Canadians to Parks

A Halifax clothing repair workshop, a virtual tour exploring a unique Chinese Garden in Edmonton, a second life for Christmas trees in Montreal and a skateboarding lesson for newbies in Vancouver.

In 2021, with the support of the TD Ready Commitment, TD Park People Grants brought renewed energy, joy and connection to communities across Canada. These $2,000 microgrants sparked 72 community park groups to host 216 events that provide environmental education, sustainability and stewardship – all in local parks. Close to 60% of TD Park People Grants were focused on equity-seeking communities, ensuring that the benefits of parks and green spaces are widely accessible. This focus will continue in 2022.

 

Credit photo: Neighbours Sharing Native and Pollinator Plants, Toronto.

 

Starting today, qualified organizations and community groups are invited to apply to receive a $2,000 grant to host activities that connect communities to their local parks and green spaces.

The application process is simple, and we’ve developed a number of resources to help groups host engaging community events.

The deadline to apply is February 28, 2022, and all events must take place from April 16 and December 31, 2022.

“It’s clearer than ever how much parks and green spaces mean to Canadians,” says Carolyn Scotchmer, Executive Director of TD Friends of the Environment Foundation. “We’re excited to launch the next round of TD Park People Grants because we know that they help deepen Canadians’ connection to nature, and in turn, promote the wellbeing of both people and the planet.”

TD Park People Grants are open to almost any community event in a publicly accessible green space – whether it’s a city park, social housing property, or schoolyard. Your environmental education, sustainability or stewardship event can be as unique as your community. Want to host a climate change workshop? A nature walk? Promote Indigenous stewardship? Host a bike repair workshop?

“The possibilities are open and creativity is really encouraged,” says Dave Harvey, Park People’s Executive Director.

Community groups and organizations in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Gatineau, Montreal, Quebec City, Halifax can apply now. Grassroots community groups representing diverse communities or neighbourhoods are especially encouraged to apply.

We simply can’t wait to see what this year’s TD Park People Grant recipients have in store for their communities. Apply now.

Credit cover photo: Accessible Nature Wellness Programs Inclusive, Ottawa. 

 

Park People is recruiting Board Members

Park People is seeking candidates to join our volunteer Board of Directors. This is an exciting opportunity to join a great group of people from across Canada who are helping to guide and shape the work of a growing, dynamic national charity improving parks and communities in cities from coast to coast.

The Board of Directors is legally responsible for the governance of Park People. The Board sets policies, budgets and plans to ensure that Park People achieves its goals and mission. They support the management team to set the mission and Strategic Plan of the organization, evaluate the performance of senior management and ensure fiscal accountability and the long-term resiliency of the organization.

Park People mobilizes and supports community park groups, community organizers, non-profits, park professionals, and funders to activate the power of parks to build strong communities, healthy environments, and resilient cities.

Park People is dedicated to promoting equity, multiculturalism, and inclusion in all of the work that we do. We are striving for a Board of Directors that is representative of the communities where we work, and encourage applications from BIPOC candidates.

We are open to candidates from across Canada and seek a broad representation of regions and backgrounds. At the moment, we’re looking for the following skills and expertise on our Board. In your application, we ask that you tell us what you would bring to the Board:

Our Board meets five times a year by Zoom. Board members are expected to also participate in one of our committees focused on Governance and Human Resources or Finance. Committees meet generally twice a year. There is also an annual in-person gathering usually in the Greater Toronto Area and Park People will cover any travel costs associated with this gathering.

Anticipated Start Date: This can be flexible to meet candidate needs.

We will be reviewing applications and conducting interviews on a rolling basis. We are thankful for all applications, and will only be contacting candidates invited for an interview.

Please send your resume and cover letter in one electronic file in confidence to hr@parkpeople.ca. If you require accommodation in order to participate in the recruitment process, please contact us at hr@parkpeople.ca to provide your contact information.

 

TD Park People Grants bring groups together on common ground

For the many Canadians who don’t have backyards or even balconies, parks are an important extension of their living spaces. While the environmental benefits of natural spaces are well-known, the social benefits of parks are less understood. From supporting mental health to reducing social isolation, the pandemic helped make the upstream health and social benefits of parks more visible. 

Parks can absolutely make us healthier, happier, and more connected. But, only when they are safe and accessible.  And, we know parks are less safe and quality parks are far less accessible to equity-seeking communities. 

In Park People’s survey of nearly 3,500 Canadians, those who identified as Black, Indigenous, or a person of colour were more likely to report experiencing barriers to park use during the pandemic, such as fear of ticketing (24%) and harassment (22%). 

For the past four years, TD Park People Grants have helped build vital connections between people and parks. While equity-seeking groups have been core to the program from the start, this year, we set a clear target to ensure that 50% of TD Park People Grants were awarded to equity-deserving groups in cities across Canada. 

In Toronto, Youth Leaders of East York and Street to Trail are dedicated to making the benefits of parks, ravines, and public spaces accessible to equity-seeking communities.

Youth Leaders of East York walk on the wild side

At the start of the pandemic, Thorncliffe Park was disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Dr. Jeff Powis, the medical director of infection control at the community’s Michael Garron Hospital made this clear, stating:

“It became quite clear to me that COVID-19 disproportionately impacts people with health inequities — things such as housing, income, and racialization.”

As the needs of health-care sector, service industry and gig economy workers drew focus, the needs of the community’s local youth receded from view. Elmirah, the co-founder of Youth Leaders of East York, saw a need in her community and quickly banded together with like-minded peers to build a network of support for local youth. As a first-generation Canadian, Elmirah wanted to provide ways for local youth, like herself, to become engaged and active in their communities.

The Youth Leaders of East York help youth connect to jobs and volunteer positions, foster leadership and teamwork skills, learn about a range of topics like accessing funding for post-secondary education, reducing community violence and accessing racism. 

The group launched the ‘Green Team’ to bring youth together to address environmental issues in their community and globally. The Youth Leaders of East York secured a TD Park People Grant to host “Summer Environmental Stewardship Series” events which included a ravine walk with Floyd Ruskin who is a principal member of the volunteer conservation and stewardship group Don’t Mess With the Don and has been actively working to protect, restore and revitalize the Don Valley for more than 30 years. 

I joined Youth Leaders of East York for a stroll through the valley of the Don River. For the Youth Leaders, who grew up in adjacent neighbourhoods like Thorncliffe Park, certain neighbourhood parks are quite familiar. But, this more unruly and hidden space was new, unexplored territory. Along the way, Floyd drew our attention to some of the space’s wilder features. Previous online sessions prompted participants to explore what nature and stewardship mean to them, and what emotions are evoked when they spend time in nature. The walk with Floyd brought these emotions to the surface, demonstrating that terms like stewardship, invasive species management, and conservation may not seem like terms likely to stir up strong feelings, there is no one better suited to make ravines matter than Floyd Ruskin. 

 

We all left the walk with a new appreciation for the valley and had a whole new level of confidence and comfort in the wild and wonderful ravine space.

Street to Trail zooms in on nature with unhoused people

Street to Trail brings homeless and marginalized adults into nature for day hikes and camping trips. They do this to provide people living in poverty and marginalized communities with opportunities to find even temporary relief from “the challenges of city life.”As Toronto’s only wilderness-based organization for marginalized adults, Street to Trail knows that time spent in nature has a multitude of benefits, and that “regular access to nature improves lives with its inherent power to feed an individual’s mind, body and soul.”

Lately, because of the pandemic, their trips have been closer to home. 

Street to Trail received a TD Park People Grant to lead events including a photovoice hike in High Park. Simply put, photovoice uses photography to enable to empower people to document their point of view and share their experiences.  The camera’s lens becomes an extension of participants’ eyes and helps amplify their perspective-both for themselves and others.

By hosting a nature-focused photowalk, Street to Trail offered participants a new way to build connections with the natural world.  After a brief introduction to the core principles of photography, participants were invited to select the camera of their choice – ranging from point-and-shoot to larger professional ones.  

Stopping at several points along the walk, participants put their newly honed photographic skills to good use. By the end of the photovoice hike, I shared participants’ enthusiasm for zooming in on unique natural features that might otherwise be invisible. We each had our own nature narrative and it both belonged to us and to the larger landscape. 

It was a privilege to join both Street to Trail and Youth Leaders of East York on their nature excursions. Participating alongside them made it clear that both community groups are actively and creatively bridging the gap between our city’s most natural green spaces and people who long to build connections to nature. By prioritizing equity-seeking groups in the outreach and granting process, TD Park People grants are helping to integrate ideas of social access into our vision of  “accessing green spaces.”

Change, Hope, and Tension: Perspectives and Practices on Making Green Spaces BIPOC Inclusive

Advancing BIPOC inclusion in parks isn’t about platitudes, it’s about the systems and practices that determine who is safe taking up space in public space.

As PhD Candidate and Vanier Scholar Nadha Hassen so astutely says

“Not everyone experiences a green space in the same way. The presumption that they do undermines the potential for green spaces to improve health in an equitable way, especially for Black, Indigenous and racialized people.”

To recognize Park People’s tenth year in parks, we’re hosting a special, candid conversation entitled:  Change, Hope, and Tension: Perspectives and Practices on Making Green Spaces BIPOC Inclusive. The title of the event comes from a 2017 Park People interview with Jay Pitter, MES, an award-winning placemaker whose practice mitigates growing divides in cities across North America. In the interview, Pitter shares:

While it’s important to address issues at the systemic level, there’s something powerful about how change, hope, and tension can be felt on the street-level.”

We know that parks must actively advance urban equity issues and affirm racial justice movements. This can only happen if Black, Indigenous, and people of colour have the right to freely exist in public space

On October 21st at 2pm, join Park People and our Founding Sponsor TD Bank Group as we explore what “street-level” inclusion looks and feels like in parks and public spaces. 

Through dialogue with some of Canada’s leading experts, the session will provide practical insights to help community groups cultivate practices that foster full BIPOC participation in parks and public spaces.

Join us for this important conversation, featuring:

The session will be moderated by Park People’s Board Chair and CEO and Founder of Monumental, Zahra Ebrahim and conducted in English with French interpretation. 

Join Park People and TD Bank on October 21st at 2pm to explore how conscious commitment to  “change, hope, and tension” will create new and powerful possibilities for parks and public spaces.

 

Lights and Curtain Up for Arts in the Parks

Toronto is home to both artists and arts lovers. In fact, 90% of Torontonians believe that the arts make Toronto a better place to live and twice as many artists live in Toronto than any other city.

Arts in the Parks was established in 2016 to address inequities around who benefits from Toronto’s robust arts scene. In a 2015 survey, it was found that higher-income households are significantly more likely to attend arts performances in the city. Among those that experience barriers to the arts, the most notable challenges are cost, time and geographical distance.

 

Photo credit: Hercinia Arts in Flagstaff Park, 2021

 

Arts in the Parks’ outdoor, family-friendly, free, live performances in parks were created to make it easier for more people to experience and benefit from Toronto’s 9-billion-dollar culture sector. Not surprisingly, the pandemic put a wrench in park performances. But now, safe events are back in a big and safe way.

 

Curtain time

 

The pandemic has resulted in 12,000 public performances being cancelled in Toronto and $58 million in lost revenue from ticket sales. It is not an overstatement to say the sector has been decimated. This doesn’t just mean our city was less vibrant. It also means that artists and arts producers lost $16 million in salaries and fees.

During this time, The Toronto Arts Foundation continued to provide grants to artists, both to provide financial stability to performers and continue to provide people with access to virtual and other artistic performances during endless lockdowns. In 2020, Arts in the Parks introduced Arts in the Parks Anyplace. Working hand-in-hand with artists, the initiative resulted in brilliant performances from top-notch artists like Parks ‘n Wreck and Clay and Paper Theatre.

“Arts in the Parks artists were so open to finding new ways to connect with audiences. They stretched their vision beyond the park, while still bringing the park to people’s homes” says Jaclyn Rodrigues, Community Engagement Manager at Toronto Arts Foundation.

Supporting the arts

During the pandemic, the City of Toronto remained committed to Toronto artists. The Toronto Arts Foundation partnered with Toronto Arts Council, with assistance from the City of Toronto, to create the TOArtist COVID-19 Response Fund with 100% of all donations going directly to artists. A simple online application coupled with no restrictions on how the funds were used and no required reporting reduced barriers for artists who received the $1000 grants. The Fund resulted in a collective contribution of $836,347 to 982 Toronto artists.

 

Photo credit: Together again in Little Avenue Memorial Park, 2021

 

“We wanted to make it as simple as possible for artists to survive the pandemic in Toronto. There was a narrative about people fleeing the city. But when artists leave, there’s a huge impact on all our lives,” says Rodrigues.

Lights Up!

With restrictions lifted August saw Arts in the Parks back in the parks. Artists, volunteers and performers have returned to 25 North York, Etobicoke, and Scarborough parks delivering safe, original programming, workshops and performances in 25 parks.

With strict health and safety protocols in place, artists are bringing socially distanced dance classes, workshops, theatrical performances, movies and festivals back to communities that need them more than ever.

“I’ve been part of Arts in the Parks from the beginning. We knew that bringing the arts to communities was special. But now, seeing audiences back in the park is everything,” says Rodrigues.

 

Photo credit: Nagata Shachu in Beverly Glen Park, 2021

 

The arts make Toronto alive. With the return of Arts in the Parks that beating pulse can be felt in parks like Amos Waites, Walter Saunders and Little Avenue Memorial. Audiences are coming together (while six feet apart) to reconnect with the sounds, sights and vibes that make Toronto a leading arts city.

 

Thank you to Toronto Arts Foundation for the photos. Cover photo credit: Dance Together Festival in Amos Waites Park, 2021.

Community Urban Farms: Spaces of Pride, Togetherness, “Struggle” and Joy

This contribution from Emilie Jabouin is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 


 

“Byen Pre Pa La Kay” in Haitian Creole means the work is continuous and ongoing. The saying encapsulates the work of farming, which is a constant struggle requiring ongoing adaptation and transition. It’s an experience that resonates particularly for Black people, who have always lived to re-create and re-invent ourselves. So, for Black communities in the Toronto area, community farms are places of pride, togetherness, love and care that are worth fighting for.

 

Accessing community and support through farming

 

The Black Creek Community Farm (BCCF), established in 2012 on eight acres of land rented from the Toronto and Region Conservation Agency (TRCA), is a model for sustainable food security and urban farming. The community-driven BCCF is open to its members to grow food and access its food forest and trails, and to the public to buy produce that is surplus after sales to its membership. The farm includes a medicine wheel garden; an outdoor school for children to develop motor skills and to animate school trips; a fire pit for story-telling and community-building; an area for seniors where planting beds are adapted for mobility; and, most importantly, crops of culturally specific foods and native plants.

The culturally adapted services and general environment of the BCCF is model community members argue is needed throughout the city. As Ama Deawuo, until recently the Executive Director of the BCCF, says, fresh and plentiful food is available in well-off neighbourhoods such as Rosedale, but in comparison, communities largely populated by Black people do not have the access to the same level of variety and freshness of food.

 

Photo credit: Ama Deawuo, former Executive Director of the Black Creek Community Farm

 

The dense Jane and Finch area where the BCCF is located is an example of this situation, with little access to green spaces that serve the agricultural and recreational needs of its community. Sam Tecle, a steering committee member of the BCCF who grew up in the area, says the farm is a unique space in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and the world.

It “symbolizes community, love, interdependence. It shows that we can show up for each other, that we can support and provide.”

Tecle describes Jane and Finch as “a global community” made up of recent newcomers to Canada, as well as earlier generations of residents from Ghana, Jamaica, Ecuador and Italy, among other places, but one that has suffered from neglect and disinvestment. The neighbourhood is a vibrantly talented community of care, one where residents support each other and reinvest in the community with the skills each can bring to the table, but it tends to be sensationalized by the media in ways that disregard these qualities and define the area as violent and criminal.

Yet for residents, it is home, and the youth speak out against these narratives.

As Femi Lawson says in “Vice visits Jane & Finch”: “[e]verybody has somebody who kind of influences them in some kind of positive […] way. And when you have a community of those people, it builds you.”

The multicultural and multiethnic Jane and Finch area has been hit the hardest in Toronto by the pandemic and has a long history of marginalization by provincial and municipal governments alike. But as community grower, Rastafari agriculturist, lover of nature, community advocate and long-standing community member, Peachtree Boucaud, who previously worked for the BCCF as their Farms Market Manager, reminds us, “We are the bees to our work. We are the connectors, the pollinators.” The City of Toronto and other official entities, such as the TRCA, facilitate green spaces for use by lower-income racialized communities. However, when paying attention to the history of peoples’ relationships to the land in the city, the reality of who maintains these crucial green spaces is more complex and starts with the people who cultivate these spaces and their commitment to supporting each other’s endeavours.

 

Farming at its roots

 

The reality is that Black and racialized farmers, and Indigenous land stewarding and healing initiatives, have preceded city-led projects. As a result, today, the urban farming landscape of Toronto includes well-established structures in the community such as the BCCF, community gardens, and grassroots projects that include open plots where people collectively farm. They all have different funding structures and visibility.

Boucaud boasts proudly that “a lot of those community gardens are really led by a lot of Black women.”

The question of food security and environmental justice is closely connected to a history of advocacy. “We are living in the spaces where this environmental injustice is happening!” says Boucaud, “but we’re not elevated in the conversation.” She rejoices at describing one of her favourite gardens, located at Jane and Weston road – “Ms. Charlyn Ellis is at Emmett [Avenue Community] Gardens, that garden is one of my favourite gardens, […] there’s bees there, there’s so much you can learn, you know? And the work of the people there at Emmett’s Garden goes unnoticed.”

 

 

The community holds the knowledge. Boucaud explains that in many cases Black farmers come to Canada with all of their skills, but are overlooked because no one ever asked them about their expertise. And younger generations like myself have learned to garden and farm from our foremothers and fathers. I learned to grow from my mother and by listening to my grandmothers’ stories of farming in Haiti.

Boucaud’s experience was the same, she tells me, “My grandfather was a grower, my dad grew all over his lawn, the City of Toronto sent him an award, but I never thought of myself as that because it was like, a natural thing you know, it’s not something you go and do, it’s already a part of what you do already. So I got to the farm, I started doing the work, I ran the Farmer’s Market, and that was a huge eye-opener.”

Farming is an important part of passing on generational knowledge and empowering disenfranchised communities to develop food autonomy.

Maintaining such a vibrant and community-oriented space is a result of ongoing efforts. Tecle says that “for the farm to be what it is, it is Ama, it’s the staff team, it’s the community that has had to push. […] So there’s a long history there of a fight between the city and community members too – […] that relationship had to be forged in order to keep the farm in many ways community-based.” Deawuo also shares her dreams of seeing the farm expand to having its own café entirely supplied by food harvested from the farm by farmer members and prepared by chef members.

Community green space as Black living

Farming is not just farming, but a “labour of love,” says Hannah Conover-Arthurs, Program Coordinator at Ubuntu Community Collective, an organization that prioritizes food security and services and empowers single Black mothers around farming, including through an urban farm at Downsview Park, south-east of Jane and Finch. As a chef by vocation, she focuses on healing and food security, growing plant medicine, feeding mothers, supporting mental health – the whole spectrum of physical well-being, spirituality and connecting to the land.

 

Photo credit: Indigenous medicine wheel at Black Creek Community Farm

 

Conover-Arthurs also cites the educational value of farming – it builds skill, confidence and teaches you another perspective on life.

Her nieces and nephews “get to be part of the process” on their trips to plant and harvest with her because “it is also an education you can’t get anywhere else.”

Fatin Chowdhury, the Development and Communications manager for the BCCF, describes the community education around healthy food options and sustainability as a major accomplishment of the farm: “We have our urban harvest program, which looks at how to look at our food waste, how to preserve food, […] knowing more about our local food options. We have our farm education team – they do a lot of workshops that teach kids, youth, families about local ecologies, urban agriculture, urban farming, gardening. These are all topics that we really want our community to learn about and to apply in their own backyards.”

Many people in the Jane and Finch area, for instance, live in high towers with limited access to green space where they can grow food, be active and connect with people. In Boucaud’s words, “I live in an apartment […] I try to grow whatever I can [on my balcony], and spend the rest of my time in the community garden.” In community gardens, “people really find community and a space to grow,” she adds, “in addition to food in their household, and saving some money and some change into their pockets for them to possibly do other things with their family.”

The pandemic and lockdown started in March 2020, during the growing season, and initially included restrictions on tending community gardens, which threatened people’s physical and mental well-being. Many local residents are “relegated to small living spaces,” stresses Boucaud. But the community successfully and safely advocated and got the gardens re-opened. These spaces are much more than programs, says Boucaud, “they are a staple in our community.”

 

Community advocacy, solidarity, justice and education

 

Community grassroots urban farms and gardens are spaces that bring people together and offer what Tecle calls “political education” and advocacy that contributes to a broader vision of justice for Black, Indigenous, racialized and marginalized communities.

 

Photo credit: Black Creek Community Farm outdoor school

 

A place like the BCCF is “multidimensional,” says Tecle, “it’s much more than a farm.” He describes it as “a meeting space, an event space, an educational space, it’s a symbol, it’s a place of pride.” Speaking from experience and from past steering committee actions, Tecle describes how the farm has taken positions against the racist and ableist policies: “the farm itself has not been shy in taking up community issues, be it, when, you know, the local grocery store was […] putting the formula behind locked doors – or [saying] you can’t come in with the baby carriage or an assisted mobility device. The farm took a position early – these owners addressed it and policy was quickly taken down.”

 

Quicker response and the question of land ownership

 

Community urban farming initiatives that are supported by the City seem to be part of a dance.

“The city needs to focus on sustainability,” says Conovers-Arthurs. “We are constantly dealing with one-year leases and then renewed for two years. We are left wondering whether we can farm next year?”

The issue of land ownership and leasing presents a major barrier to Black farmers since they are more often reliant on public land rather than privately-owned property. What is discouraging, says Boucaud, is that the “land is not attached to the community,” so long-term planning, cultural spiritual practices on the land and growing, in general, pose challenges.

If Black people make an investment and work the land, “we are not investing just for 3 years! That’s our livelihood,” states Conovers-Arthurs.

These farms are substantial assets connected to peoples’ identities that provide essential services enabling the community to live balanced and healthy lives. “What we provide as a space, as a service, as an idea to the community is worth much more beyond what our funding is, but we have to constantly plead and beg and ask through grants,” as Tecle puts it. “We have no luxury of thinking about what we might build on the space, let’s say on the ground of the farm, in 5 years.” The call to action is for the City to shift the land management model, to think long-term. Assuring access to water, accessible bathrooms, planting beds with seats and other agricultural and accessibility initiatives are other important considerations that require long-term planning and investment in order to serve the broader community, notes Boucaud. And why not imagine that Black communities can be fully responsible for the land they steward, without oversight from the City?

The issue of food security predates Covid-19 with “4.4 million people including 1.2 million children under 18” who did not have access to sufficient food in Canada according to University of Toronto-based research “Feeding the City: Pandemic & Beyond.” The report confirms local community farming initiatives are the most accessible ways for more marginalized and vulnerable communities to obtain fresh, accessible foods, and raises the question of whether food security and sustainability for everyone, including for more marginalized communities, is a priority for governments. The demand is certainly there – as Boucaud points out, the waiting list to get into community gardens is very long.

 

Farming as a means of collective pride

 

A sense of personal and collective pride oozes from the words of the community members. Conovers-Arthurs describes the “inspiration, love and passion” that create a positive ripple effect in people’s lives while reflecting on the impact in her own life.

Tecle speaks of the overwhelming support from the community that translates into “an increased interest in farming, agriculture, [and] the education.” Chowdhury marks “the shift in who we are” in terms of the food delivery services the BCCF was able to provide to the community and the way in which the community further developed trust in the farm as part of their social safety network. And of course, Boucaud proclaims, “the joy we have in these spaces!” The BCCF has broken down barriers and silos for people often marginalized and boxed into their interactions with governments and has made the simple pleasures of life accessible to people and youth who have been confined in dense neighbourhoods – finally gaining a chance to experience what Chowdhury deems “critical green space in the city.”

Tecle likes to see that pride in the BCCF members when, during the annual dinner, “folks in community who are proud that people from outside are pulling up to the farm and getting this like very nice swanky experience and, you know, maybe they leave thinking ‘Jane and Finch is just not what they tell me it is’.”

 

Joy and community upheaval

 

Ultimately, community farming programming serves as a stepping stone – “it is an incubator” says Conovers-Arthurs. Boucaud adds, “you learn about the cultures of other people, how they grow, how they pollinate!” And Conovers-Arthurs explains how community programming offers people tools to progressively get their own land, start their projects and then their own businesses. She considers the ability to care for her own family members and instill the importance of the community as a “family unit” as a sacred thing. Becoming part of the Ubuntu Community Collective is a means for her to care for her mother, to support people healing from trauma and to create a place where “people see you for who you are.” It is a place where you can receive “support for your well-being, your freedom, your creativity, your healthcare, your transformation, your inspiration.”

 

Photo credit: Black Creek Community Farm Entrance

 

In the spirit of the idea that community builds you, Conovers-Arthurs says, “there are a lot of heartbreaks in farming, but when you have people around you and you see what people do, it supports you.” She feels her life was transformed by engaging in growing food, first through Fresh City Farms, and now hopes to one day be able to sustain herself through her farming.

Truth be told, farming is hard, but “there’s also a lot of joy” that comes out of community gardens, says Boucaud. The people are the backbone of farming in Toronto. Food security, well-being, and creating sustainable food pathways and connecting spiritual, mentally and physically healthy communities is a fight. Demanding sustainable strategies for wellness is part of the constant work for autonomy, identity, heritage, self-knowledge, sacredness, reconnection to the land and healing from historical, current and ongoing traumas, as well as for breaking from future harmful patterns.

As repeated by community voices, conversations about farming are multifaceted and intersectional. As Conovers-Arthurs says, “[t]he way we eat is a reflection of how we show up in the world.”

The pride, commitment to community and struggle of farming has always been worth it. So, as proud people would chant in Haitian Creole, “Nou pap kite peyi-a pou yo” – “We will not give up who we are.”

 

 

 

 

About Emilie Jabouin

Emilie Jabouin is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication & Culture, working on her doctoral dissertation at Ryerson/York universities on Black women organizers and journalists in early 20th-century Canada. Emilie is also a storyteller and dance artist who explores the social and cultural histories and expressions of the African diasporas. Find her on Twitter at @emilie_jabouin.

 


 

This contribution from Emilie Jabouin is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks.  The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

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