Students in Laurier course to design 'sustainable habitats' for local churches, community groups

Forget the term paper — students in an upper-year Indigenous studies class will instead cap off the semester by designing a 'sustainable habitat' at a local church or other community space.
The Minjimendan garden is based on traditional Indigenous ecological knowledge. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Forget the term paper — students in an upper-year Indigenous studies class at Wilfrid Laurier University will instead cap off the semester by designing a "sustainable habitat" for a local church or community group.

The course is led by Andrew Judge, a researcher who leads the Minjimendan Indigenous garden at the rare Charitable Research Reserve in Cambridge. The garden is home to around 26 native species of plants and foods, and is described by Judge as a place where people can reconnect with the land and water.

"We're trying to remind people that we need to restore the earth, we need to restore our relationship to it and when we do that, we heal as individuals and communities," said Judge, who is also the Indigenous studies coordinator at Conestoga College.

The goal is to build similar spaces in other parts of the region, drawing on traditional ecological knowledge.

Eight local organizations, most of them churches, have signed up to partner with students on their projects.

'It's all interconnected'

Neala Hayratiyan, 22, is enrolled in the course and is working with the Emmanuel United Church. She said her group is trying to identify plants that could work well with the church's shady property — possibly corn and potatoes.

Hayratiyan said she was drawn to the course because she wanted to learn more about the land where she grew up.

"We're not just learning about each plant in the area, but we're also learning about how it all is interconnected, as well as how the community plays a part in this sustainability," she said.

Although the students are expected to come up with a plan for what a sustainable habitat could look like on their property, it will be in the organizations' hands to make that happen.

Laura Hamilton, with Divest Waterloo, has applied for a grant through the region to help fund the next stage of the projects.

She said there's been "a real appetite" for the project among the organizations she works with.

"People want to do things, and working with the land is a great way to get people thinking about their relationship with the rest of the living world," she said.

Andrew Judge says he studied the sustainability practices of Indigenous peoples for his dissertation, and drew on that knowledge to create Minjimendan. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)