London

Residents near east London park call for action after Indigenous healing garden set on fire

An Indigenous healing garden in a wooded area near Hamilton Road and Egerton Street in London, Ont. was set ablaze early Thursday morning.

The fire is the latest in a string of property crimes and discarded needles in area

Ian MacLean, a local who lives nearby, said the fire was 12 to 15 feet high. (Submitted by Ian MacLean)

The Indigenous Medicine and Teaching Garden in east London's South Branch Park was set ablaze early Thursday morning. An encampment that had been set up in the garden, with picnic tables and shopping carts, also burned.  

"The flames were about 12 to 15 feet high, and it was black smoke heading up into the air," said Ian MacLean, who lives nearby. He was walking his dog around 7:30 a.m. and saw the flames rising from a wooded area south of Smith Street, near Hamilton Road and Egerton Street.

MacLean said he heard explosions coming from the garden before seeing two men flee on bikes. After calling the fire department, crews were then able to extinguish the blaze before it spread any further.

Ongoing concerns over property crimes and drug use

"This is sacred land that just got desecrated," he said. "I think the city needs to be held to account for this."

London police said they did not attend the fire and are not investigating the incident.

MacLean said he and other residents have expressed their frustration over a lack of police presence in the neighbourhood.

"I've had things stolen from my backyard, we find needles all over the place," he said. "There's been very little proactive action from the city to help the people that actually live here deal with the influx of homeless people that have started to show up here."

Coun. Michael van Holst, who represents the area, expressed disappointment over the fire.

"It makes me very sad because the man who had the vision for the garden and personally saw it through to the end and put in a great deal of effort, is a friend of mine," van Holst said. "I'll certainly do whatever I can to rectify the desecration."

Russell Green, former president of the Thames Bluewater Métis Council (TBWMC), created the garden known as Mushkeeki Gitigan, which means medicine garden in Ojibway.

Waste and burnt metal seen at aftermath of the fire. (Sara Jabakhanji/CBC)

It first opened in 2018 and is a place to grow traditional plants with healing properties.

The garden features sweet grass, an important and commonly used plant by Indigenous communities, along with tobacco, sage and cedar, as well as strawberries, corn, beans and squash.

TBWMC President Kathleen Anderson told CBC London the council is "saddened by the loss of this important Indigenous space within London and are hoping that the resources can be found to rebuild."

Van Holst said the city tentatively scheduled a clean-up for Monday, but will first check with the Indigenous community for direction in the matter.

An Indigenous healing garden was set ablaze Thursday morning, where an encampment site was set up. (Sara Jabakhanji/CBC)

The Ward 1 councillor said he has been getting a number of calls from residents reporting crimes and finding needles on the ground in the neighbourhood.

Councillors call for homeless warming centre to be relocated

Van Holst said this is the latest of a number of complaints from residents of the area and large reports of crime after a warming centre opened up for homeless people at the Hamilton Road Seniors Centre.

The centre, which opened to serve as day space during the winter, has now been extended until the end of June.

Van Holst said he and Ward 2 councillor Shawn Lewis put forward a motion to have city staff do "larger sweeps" for needles and for the warming centre to be relocated for the planned extension. 

The motion will be put forward at an upcoming council meeting.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sara Jabakhanji

Reporter/Editor

Sara Jabakhanji is a reporter with CBC News and has chased stories for the CBC across the province of Ontario in Toronto, Ottawa and London. She was born in Damascus, Syria and is fluent in Arabic. Reach her at: sara.jabakhanji@cbc.ca

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