Breaking Dormancy

A Garden as a Public Gesture

Garden with signs.The sign says:

With this Heart Garden we honour the children who were lost or survived the Indian Residential School System. The garden is in the form of an Aboriginal medicine wheel, and planted with tulips representing the colours of the wheel. May we the children of Bathurst, Bloor Street and Trinity St. Paul’s United Churches be part of a movement towards a future of Reconciliation and Justice.

The churchyard of Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church on Bloor at Spadina is a prominent site to make a garden, and this one functions as a very public statement. Planted with bulbs in the fall, the shape of the medicine wheel was apparent but barren all winter, and now finally it is in bloom. The tulips blossom in the traditional colours of the four directions: red, white, black, yellow.

A church site is always filled with religious symbols, and it is strange to see this non-Christian anomaly on their land. But that is a part of the point – it is not their land. They are on unceded Anishnabe land, as they now verbally acknowledge at the beginning of every service. Embedding a Native cultural symbol in the actual land is a very concrete recognition of this state of affairs.

According to a spokesperson at the desk inside the church, the garden is part of United Church reconciliation efforts; many heart gardens have been planted across Canada. This one was made by the Sunday school children with the guidance of their teacher and a parishioner who is a landscape architect. The children’s participation is obvious in the coloured and signed medicine wheels that comprise the border of the sign and the paper hearts that are at the centre of the garden.

Certainly the United Church has much to answer for with regard to Canada’s Aboriginal inhabitants, as do all Canadians. They, along with other churches and the government, operated the Indian Residential Schools in Canada. The last residential school did not close until 1996. Children's hearts in the garden.That failed assimilation effort is part of a broader and ongoing colonial legacy. Currently, as is stated on their website, “The United Church of Canada is committed to seeking right relationships with Aboriginal Peoples and to supporting First Nations in their struggle for self-government and Aboriginal rights.” There is much activity to support.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) final report in 2015 laid out a detailed list of 94 Calls to Action. All are legislative and cultural changes necessary for becoming an equitable society. The last action on the TRC list relates to the oath of citizenship. Canada is a nation of immigrants, formed by settlement, formalized through treaties between the British crown and many Indigenous nations already inhabiting this territory. Here is the addition to the oath that is called for:

and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada including Treaties with Indigenous Peoples, and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen.

Throughout the country First Nations people are leading protective actions in locations of toxic industrialization involving pipelines, chemical pollution, tainted drinking water. Idle No More is a recent grassroots mobilization of Indigenous nations across Canada. Since 2012 it has initiated teach-ins, flashmob round-dancing and drumming, blockades and rallies to educate and to resist corporate destruction. Idle No More continues to organize actions and events and “calls on all people to join in a peaceful revolution, to honour Indigenous sovereignty and to protect the land and water.”Medecine wheel garden

A four-minute walk from Trinity-St. Paul’s is the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto (NCCT), which delivers programs and services to urban Indigenous people – over half of all Native Canadians live in cities. The church spokesperson recounted internal discussion within the parish, which is considering sharing the Sunday collection with the Native Centre – to walk up Spadina after services and give a portion to the NCCT. Perhaps they are inspired by Aboriginal culture as it is described by the NCCT: The strength and beauty of our people lays in our ability and willingness to share with one another as well as with our non-Indigenous members and other interest groups. This is one of the fundamental values embodied in our distinctive culture. 

Whatever the extent and adequacy of the church’s efforts, the public nature of this reconciliation garden is a declaration to the broader, non-United Church community.  The streetscape of Bloor at Spadina now pointedly reminds passers-by of our very recent history and the ongoing injustice of Indigenous life in Canada. A beautiful garden that stimulates reflection and discussion is an effective prod to all of us. If we are not already engaged with this issue, we have many points of entry. Look in any direction.

– Schuster Gindin
Photos by Schuster Gindin

This article is part of our issue Breaking Dormancy.


Thanks for this post on the “garden as a public gesture”. Here in Saugeen Shores we are joining together with local churches, First Nation Bands and other interested residents to build a stronger community and I’ve passed your Living Toronto article along.
Cheryl Krysaniwsky, Port Elgin, ON



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