Seed Sowing: Indigenous Relationship-Building as Processes of Environmental Action

This case study explores the journey of the Wisahkotewinowak Collective, an Indigenous-led grassroots food sovereignty initiative in the Grand River Territory within southern Ontario, where climate change impacts such as heat waves and extreme rain affect local food systems and security. The initiative operates within the Lake Erie Lowland region, which has been designated a “crisis ecoregion”. Through three stories that describe the fostering of distinct relationships within the Wisahkotewinowak, this case study illustrates how Indigenous leadership can enhance community efforts to transform shared social spaces, built environments and ecological climates by:

  • Finding land use opportunities in natural urban places;
  • Imagining and creating place for Land-based learning;
  • Building and mobilizing community to enhance local biodiversity and social adaptations; and,
  • Enhancing Indigenous food sovereignty practices towards community wellbeing.

Dave Skene, an urban Métis who gardens and gathers traditional seeds as a way to connect to his Indigenous identity while living in the city of Kitchener, Ontario, along with a group of local Indigenous students, established, tended, cared for and harvested the gifts from his first community garden project – Wisahkotewinowak (“the growth of new green shoots that come up from Mother Earth after a fire has come through the Land”). The purpose of this initiative was to revitalize Indigenous Land-based practices and through this initiative knowledge of and relationship with the Land was revitalized.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

Climate change impacts such as heat waves and extreme rain will affect local food systems and security, an important determinant of health, through food accessibility, distribution and food safety. Food security within diverse Indigenous contexts, however, should not be narrowly defined as having enough to eat or sufficient household funds to purchase processed foods that may be more accessible. To restore sustainable relationships to the Land, culture, and communities, and advance reconciliation efforts alongside social and environmental justice, a resurgence of community roles and responsibilities is needed.

Organizations and agencies across jurisdictions must be aware of how Indigenous leadership can be engaged to revive and protect shared environments within urban and peri-urban regions. Climate change threatens the urban natural infrastructure we depend on for a myriad of services, while urbanization encloses more of our natural spaces. Better protection and management of these natural spaces are instrumental to the well-being of humans and non-humans alike. The Wisahkotewinowak initiative offers solutions to these challenges.

Identifying Actions

Soon after its establishment, Wisahkotewinowak outgrew its initial garden location. So, in 2017, Dave began dreaming with university professors Hannah Tait Neufeld and Kim Anderson about how they could support the health of urban Indigenous communities through Indigenous food sovereignty and access to Land. Through their relationship and individual connections, new gardens were established across the region at Steckle Heritage Farm, the Guelph Organic Centre at the University of Guelph, and the University of Waterloo. And last spring, White Owl Native Ancestry Association staff developed the Indigenous teaching garden at the Blair Outdoor Education Centre.

The Wisahkotewinowak Collective grew with each new garden and nurtured relationships in community. Meaningful places were created at these garden sites, and the Collective has welcomed more students, academics, activists and Elders to become involved. As a Collective, relationships extend to many youth, students, families, Elders and non-human kin in the places that sustain them. The connection to the gardens and a main philosophy is also in relation to the Dish with One Spoon Territory, which the Collective strives to uphold by taking only what is needed, leaving some for the next person, and keeping the dish clean.

The fruits of this work are now tangible, as the Collective works to develop processes of relationship building, sharing food in community and continuing to grow and harvest food in self-determined ways across the Waterloo-Wellington region.

FIgure 1: Seed Story Model

The model encompasses four essential stages: 1. Receiving the gift of the seed, 2. Planting the seed, 3. Nurturing the seed, and 4. Harvesting, saving, and sharing the seed.

Image representing the four essential stages of the Seed Story Model: 1. Receiving the gift of the seed, 2. Planting the seed, 3. Nurturing the seed, and 4. Harvesting, saving, and sharing the seed. The four stages are represented using a cyclical diagram, showing that it is an ongoing process. The Wisahkotewinowak logo, two green leaves with roots shooting out, is in the centre of a green circle.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

As illustrated across the stories presented, the Wisahkotewinowak Collective is engaged in innovative projects that show how Indigenous-led efforts can encompass sustainable environmental action and activities supporting local movements. Throughout its evolution, the Collective has seized opportunities by creating places and spaces for Land-based community learning, and safeguarded and enhanced local biodiversity. These actions were achieved by processes of environmental action such as establishing relationships that support collective ecological wellness with All Our Relations: people, plants, animals, and the Land. The three stories exemplify how relationships establish processes that form the basis of transformative actions to benefit shared social, built and ecological environments.

The Collective will continue to reflect on its responsibilities and position in relation to the local Territories. Members will carry on caring for the Land and encourage others to add to this evolving story of relationship-building and decolonization. Relationships require time, energy and accountability, and when successfully engaged they can seed other relationships and ideas for reconciliation with each other and the Land. This work is transferable to urban Indigenous communities, with the potential to inform all levels of policy making and other systems of governance beyond colonial structures. Recommendations from the Collective are framed by the seed story model (illustrated in Figure 1) that encompass four essential stages: receiving the gift of the seed, planting the seed, nurturing the seed, and harvesting, saving and sharing the seed. For more details on the seed story model refer to Resources section below for the link to the full case study.

Implementation

The Wisahkotewinowak Collective supports local projects and initiatives that foster Indigenous food security through deepening connections to each other and the Land. Below is a summary of one of the stories highlighted in the case study that furthered relationship building as a way of reconnecting to Land-based community learning and practices. Creating Grounded Opportunities: The White Owl Sugar Bush.

After a talk given by White Owl Native Ancestry Association staff at Emmanuel United Church in Waterloo, Ontario in 2016, a request was made by co-Executive Director of White Owl for the church to further support White Owl’s work by giving them some Land. Coincidentally, the church owned a parcel of Land, and offered it to White Owl. The land was given designation as a protected site by the City of Kitchener due to the presence of the endangered Jefferson Salamander. The former church Land contained the perfect environment for the salamanders. As a site of mixed forest including maple, oak, beech and some pine trees, White Owl leaders recognized the potential for holding community gatherings and ceremonies, and knew that the Wisahkotewinowak Collective would be interested in harvesting maple sap. It took a year for the legal process to transpire. A ceremony was held between leaders of White Owl and the United Church of Canada to mark the official transfer of Land ownership in 2017. The site is now known as the White Owl Sugar Bush.

In 2020, one hundred maple trees were tapped on the White Owl Land, providing the sweet water to community Elders for ceremonial purposes and boiling the rest of the sap into 110 litres of maple syrup, which was shared in the White Owl food distribution program, that supports access to Indigenous and other local foods for Indigenous community members locally.

Next Steps

The seed cycle continues, as do these relational processes towards sustainable Land practices. These stages continue to expand across all forms of knowledge towards the improved health and wellbeing of Indigenous Peoples within diverse urban environments. Just as the seed metaphor frames our shared experience, the seed is a gift that must be consistently cared for, as are the relationships shared in these stories. Both are tangible entities we intentionally compare in this way, as seed and relationship require continual energy and intention, and both have the potential to bear fruitful opportunities for the future. Most importantly, the seed and its evolving story need to be treated as the gift that it is, inspiring us to pursue meaningful pathways towards reconciliation and ecological action.

As Indigenous understandings and lived realities of relationship with the environment are inherently nature-based, they provide a number of solutions that mitigate climate change and work to support and advance reconciliation that will benefit the wellness of the larger community.

Resources

Link to Full Case Study

Originally published by the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices

Additional Resources: