A Planter at Paul martel PArk, November 2021. Photo by angel yang
By: Angel Yang
We would like to respectfully acknowledge that we work on the traditional territory of many nations, including the Mississauga’s of the Credit, the Annishnabec, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat peoples, and is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit & Metis peoples from across Turtle Island. We recognize that Toronto is covered by Treaty 13, signed with the Mississauga’s of the Credit, and the Williams Treaty, signed with multiple Annishnabec Nations. As an immigrant and a settler, I, Angel, strive to keep learning and partaking in the act of reconciliation. I am grateful for Paul and his team for allowing me into their space and sharing their teachings and experiences. I hope we continue to honour and take care of this land together.
On a cloudy winter morning in November, myself and two members from the Healthy Community Initiatives (HCI) team excitedly visited the Indigenous Kitchen Garden at Spadina House, which is a project funded by HCI and done in partnership with the Earth Helpers and the Alexandra Park Neighbourhood Learning Centre. We were greeted by Paul Richard, the founder and leader of Aki Wiidookaagewin, also known as the Earth Helpers. It was clear from Paul’s demeanor that he was well-versed in gardening and landscaping. He said that he started the Earth Helpers organization because it was his calling to protect Mother Earth. His mission is to restore natural spaces and educate people about Indigenous land keeping practices, while employing Indigenous workers.
After Paul’s warm welcome, he introduced us to Ryan Clarke and Brandon Ingram, who have been working on the project together with him. The three men spoke with pride and passion as we toured around the garden. They described the hard work that had been done since the project began in July, especially in constructing the beautiful cedar planting plots that are central to their project. The intention of the Indigenous Kitchen Garden is to demonstrate food growing practices while promoting awareness of Indigenous cultures and mutual understanding between Peoples, centered around our shared appreciation of nature.
Cedar Planters Constructed by the Earth Helpers, November 2021. Photo by Angel Yang
After appreciating the garden, we were fortunate to learn about another recent project by the Earth Helpers, which was the restoration of Paul Martel Park. Paul invited us to walk down to the park, located near Spadina Station. During this walk, Paul described his visions of future ecological restorations in Toronto. I had the chance to speak with Brandon about how he got involved with the Earth Helpers. He explained that he met Paul through a gardening program at an Indigenous youth shelter when he was 16 years old. It was heartwarming to hear about how Brandon and Paul’s relationship has grown over several years.
We reached our destination: a small parkette in the Annex which Paul and his team began restoring in 2020. Paul described how the park used to be bare and underutilized, which was a stark contrast to the now green and vibrant space. Thanks to the restoration, the park features four habitats that represent the Indigenous environments in Ontario: Wetlands, Grasslands, Woodlands, and Meadows. It proudly showcases a beautiful mural, installed by local Indigenous artist Joseph Sagaj, which displays the theme ‘Indigenous Storytelling’. The work of the Earth Helpers has turned the previously underwhelming space into a colourful and meaningful place for the community, where everyone can appreciate Indigenous culture and teachings.
Mural by Joseph Sagaj at Paul Martel Park, 2021. Photo by Angel Yang
The park leads to a small courtyard and tool shed, which has been the meeting hub for the Earth Helpers. This is where the team built the planters for the Indigenous Kitchen Garden, and they were in the midst of constructing the winter covers for the planters. The HCI team and I felt so grateful to Paul and his team for welcoming us into their space and teaching us about their wonderful projects. After taking in all the sights of the garden and the park, we sat in a cafe with Elder Donelda Askewe and reflected on our time together.
Our tour of the Indigenous Kitchen Garden was the first project visit in Toronto. It was exciting and fulfilling to see one of the projects come to life and to gain a first-hand experience of the hard work that goes into each project. It was also my first time visiting Spadina House, so I was grateful to be able to admire the beauty of the large green space located right downtown. We even saw a coyote trotting around the orchards!