London

Burnt Indigenous healing garden cleaned up, but hard work of replanting lies ahead

City of London staff and community leaders were on-site at London's Indigenous Medicine and Teaching Garden Monday morning to begin restoration efforts after it was set on fire last week.

Creator of Mushkeeki Gitigan hopes to see the garden fully restored and expanded

Russell Green, Indigenous medicine and teaching garden creator, stands with his wife Kelly Green, in front of a tree that was burnt in the fire. The city's Forestry Operations team will determine whether the tree will withstand the damage. (Sara Jabakhanji/CBC)

City of London staff and community leaders were on-site at London's Indigenous Medicine and Teaching Garden  in South Branch Park Monday morning to begin restoration efforts after it was set on fire last week.

The sacred space known as Mushkeeki Gitigan — meaning medicine garden in Ojibway — first opened in 2018 and was intended to grow traditional plants with healing properties.

But the garden was set ablaze on Thursday after an encampment that had been set up with picnic tables, shopping carts and tarps caught fire.

Russell Green, the founding president of the Thames Bluewater Metis Council and creator of the garden, said he was disheartened when he heard what happened.

"I was upset to the point that I don't know if I wanted to come down here," Green told CBC News on Monday. "When I did finally have the effort to come down here, I was shocked."

Green said the damage to the garden felt like a "huge loss," as the healing garden was intended and created to be a positive space.

"Anytime something negative happens, it puts a bit of a tarnish on here."

Ian MacLean, who lives nearby and was walking his dog along the trail when he spotted what he estimated to be a 12 to 15 feet high fire, said he immediately called the fire department. (Submitted by Ian MacLean)

His wife, Kelly Green, was also on-site at the cleanup on Monday. 

"It was a lot of hard work, we worked on it for a long time," she said about the original project. "So it broke our hearts to come down and see it the way it is. We just know it will take a lot of work to bring back."

Green and his family went to the garden on Saturday to smudge the area with sage and a smoking pipe, a ritual practiced by Indigenous people to release negativity from a space.

Four workers with the City of London arrived at the Indigenous medicine and teaching garden Monday morning to help clean up the debris and material left behind after the fire on Thursday. (Sara Jabakhanji/CBC)

With planters, a fire pit and picnic tables destroyed, Green said he estimates the total damage from the fire to be anywhere between $3,000 to $4,000.

But despite the damage, Green said he hopes to not only rebuild the garden to what it once was — but also take the opportunity to expand the space. 

The garden, which had taken 19 months to bring to life, was meant to provide space for the community's Indigenous folks and for elders to educate younger generations about traditional plants and their healing properties.

Once repaired, elders will be asked to revisit the garden to give blessing to the land.

A City of London staff member puts away a propane tank that was left in the aftermath of the fire. (Sara Jabakhanji/CBC)

After being made aware of the incident, London police told CBC News Monday that members of its Street Crime Unit have since launched an investigation into the fire.

Green, who lives in the community, said he plans to monitor the area more regularly to prevent a similar incident from occurring and hopes other residents will take time to do the same.

"I think that's the biggest thing when it comes to making it viable, having people down here," Green said. "COVID restrictions made it difficult for us to come down here in an organized fashion."

Green said he is hoping to organize group efforts to rebuild the garden through the Indigenous Fellowship of Hamilton Road Facebook page. He also hopes to allocate funding and resources to get the garden back in shape for the community to use.

Coun. Michael van Holst says he is hopeful that the community will get the garden back in shape. (Sara Jabakhanji/CBC)

Michael van Holst, city councillor for the area, was also at the site for clean-up on Monday.

"I'm grateful to our city staff for having been so prompt and coming down and done a great job at cleaning up the garden," van Holst said.

"It's unfortunate that some damage has been done ... so there's definitely work and some investment that's going to be needed to put it back in working order, but I'm sure there's going to be the will and the means to do that."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sara Jabakhanji is a reporter with CBC News and graduate of Ryerson's School of Journalism. Sara has chased stories for the CBC across the province of Ontario in Toronto, Ottawa and London. You can reach her at: sara.jabakhanji@cbc.ca

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