B.C.’s first Indigenous Healing Forest — a dedicated woodland, garden or green space for reflection about Canada’s history with residential schools — is being created in the town of Gibsons, on the Sunshine Coast.
Gibsons designated an urban area as a Healing Forest nearly two years ago, but an arrowhead was found on the land so the town council are waiting for an archeological team to investigate before proceeding.
City staff are also working closely with the Squamish First Nation and are awaiting collaboration before proceeding with posting signage that explains how it is a place of peace to reflect on who lived there before settlers colonized and to acknowledge the harm that has been done to Indigenous people.
It’s located at the White Tower Park stormwater ponds, which already includes a network of wheelchair accessible trails and boardwalks in Gibsons.
So, the area was already protected for stormwater management but this new designation as a healing forest just gives that forest an extra layer of protection, said David Croal, a councillor with the town of Gibsons.
“It’s a token gesture on the part of a community or regional district to acknowledge that we need a space designated for (Indigenous) healing. It’s that simple,” said Croal, whose cousin is Peter Croal, a geologist and co-founder of the National Healing Forests Initiative along with Patricia Stirbys, a lawyer and member of the Saulteaux Cree First Nations.
The group, which formed following the Truth and Reconciliation final report in 2015, is now partnering with the David Suzuki Foundation to build a network of healing forests across Canada to honour residential school victims, survivors and families.
As part of Gibsons’ healing forest, the town is working with a First Nations arborist, who will help them plant Indigenous flora used for food and medicine along the paths, such as sage and berries. The town is also planning an addition to their community pool building where people can go to learn about First Nations’ history.
Croal hopes other communities in B.C. will follow their lead, noting that as well as creating a sacred space to heal, protecting or making new green spaces can help address the climate emergency.
“We had that heat dome last year, and so it’s a reminder that we need tree canopy. We need it for cooling,” said Croal.
Jode Roberts, manager of the Rewilding Communities program at the David Suzuki Foundation, said the healing spaces can be in any green space from a large forested area to an urban park, and are meant to be a welcoming place for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
“We just think it’s a marvellous idea,” he said, adding Stirbys and Croal have narrowly defined what a healing forest is so that individual communities can make their own interpretation.
“So it can be an existing woodland or park a green space, or a newly imagined green space or forest,” said Roberts. “I think part of the beauty of the healing forest idea is that it can be applied to a green space and it doesn’t necessarily have to have a certain number of trees per square metre. It’s really more about the community coming together, symbolically establishing these places as themed around reconciliation.”
Over the past six years, the NHFI has grown to include 10 healing forests, including one in Albert Bridge, Cape Breton, that was developed by students at Riverside School called the Knowledge Path. There, students invite Indigenous elders to share their stories, and along the path there are student-built birdhouses and flower gardens, and signs in English and Mi’kmaq, according to the DSF.
“This country can’t move forward in a meaningful way until each of us takes up the challenge of reconciliation,” said Stirbys. “By establishing a Healing Forest, anyone can take that first step to bring people together, help them reflect on this country’s tragic past and connect with nature and each other.”
In Albert Bridge students at Riverside School have developed a healing forest called the Knowledge Path, where students invite Indigenous elders to share their stories, according to the DSF. Along the two-kilometre path there are signs about the Indigenous plants in English and Mi’kmaq.
“The Healing Forests project is important,” said Eugene Arkand, a residential school survivor, in a statement released by DSF. “It will help survivors and their families with healing and reconciliation.”
The David Suzuki Foundation will be providing seed grants to people and groups that want to establish Healing Forests in 10 communities this year.