Dreaming of a national healing forest

The National Healing Forest Project is the brainchild of OOE resident Peter Croal (L) and Patricia Stirbys. Old Ottawa East is an ideal location for a Healing Forest, according to Croal. Photos Supplied

The National Healing Forest Project is the brainchild of OOE resident Peter Croal (L) and Patricia Stirbys. Old Ottawa East is an ideal location for a Healing Forest, according to Croal. Photos Supplied

by Theresa Wallace  

On the healing walk to Ottawa city hall just before the release of the 2015 Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Residential Schools, OOE resident Peter Croal was walking beside a woman he didn’t know. The two of them talked about how ordinary Canadians could participate in reconciliation. They came up with an idea and decided to collaborate.

The woman was Toronto lawyer, Patricia Stirbys, a member of the Cowessess First Nation. The idea was to establish a network of healing forests across the country.

Why a forest? “Everything I have seen about reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous people in this country has been in boardrooms and courtrooms,” explains Croal, an international development consultant who lives on Elliott Avenue. “I’ve never seen reconciliation happening in green spaces where people can come together on their own to talk and contemplate.”

Stirbys, who taught for five years in the faculty of law at University of Ottawa, says, “We all need healing from our history, a place of comfort.” (Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, estimated as many as 6000 indigenous children died in residential schools.) Croal and Stirbys have spent the past three years laying the groundwork for the National Healing Forest project.

Croal says their role is to provide the plaque design and the inspiration. “There are no forms to fill out and no approval process. We encourage, we do not direct. If a community likes the idea, then they develop the healing forest according to their vision of what would work for the people in their area.”

A healing forest project can take many forms—it might just be a tree, or a bench, or something much bigger— and initiatives so far reflect that possible variation. In Edmonton, messages of hope were put up in a park along a walking trail. Closer to home, in Perth, a community group has received funds from the city to rededicate a park to reconciliation.

The biggest healing forest project so far is in Winnipeg’s north end; within St. John Park, two circle gardens are being constructed in a space the size of a children’s playground. Lee Anne Block, a professor at the University of Winnipeg, is part of this initiative funded by municipal and provincial governments. “We want our healing forest to be an outdoor learning space as well as a place for quiet contemplation. We’ve obtained funding for a group of teachers to integrate indigenous perspectives into the provincial curriculum, which will then be used partially onsite. We have already had many students and teachers visit. With younger children we talk about nature, and they plant fingerling spruce; we teach high school kids the history of residential schools and treaties.”

Old Ottawa East is an ideal place for a healing forest, according to Croal. “We have active school, church, and university communities. Plus, we have plenty of green space and parkland.”

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