Montreal·Feeding Montreal

Kahnawake garden grows culture and community along with vegetables

When Kahnawake Mohawks Kanerahtiio Hemlock and Raven Swamp heard about a vast tract of disputed land earmarked for development, they seized the opportunity — spearheading a community garden project that's begun a conversation about food security and much more.

Mohawk teachers seize opportunity to reconnect with traditions, turning disputed land into productive garden

Kanerahtiio Hemlock picks away at the dead leaves on a hydroponic bean plant — just one of the many projects his students at Kahnawake's First Nation Regional Adult Education Center are involved in. (Jospeh Coppolino)

Feeding Montreal is a series that explores the political, economic, social and personal relationships Montrealers have with their food. It's a collaboration between the Department of Journalism at Concordia University and CBC Montreal.

This story is the work of a team of student journalists.


Kanerahtiio Hemlock brushes off the freshly fallen snow from an aluminum pail hanging from the maple tree in front of him. He peers inside to inspect how much sugary liquid has accumulated over the last few days.

Satisfied with the yield, he unhooks the pail from its tap and pours the sap into a large, bright orange bucket that sinks deep into the knee-high snow under the weight of its contents.

"Some days you can fill up these buckets with just a couple of trees," Hemlock says.

Kanerahtiio Hemlock, right, discusses the process of tapping trees with student Travis Deer. (Joseph Coppolino)

A teacher at the First Nation Regional Adult Education Center (FNRAEC) in the Mohawk territory of Kahnawake on Montreal's South Shore, Hemlock has brought his students to this patch of forest to help a community member collect sap from some 200 maple trees here before turning it into syrup.

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Hemlock's course is unlike any other: students are involved in a range of hands-on projects, such as gardening, beekeeping and raising chickens.

They are also encouraged to connect with their Mohawk culture and give back to their community.

"I've been showing them that it's okay to help people and not expect anything in return. By giving out that good will and helping out, it comes back in different ways," Hemlock said.

As the first signs of spring appear, Hemlock and his students anxiously wait for the snow to melt. They are all ready to work in a project that inspired the creation of the FNAREC course: Kahnawake's community garden.

Students Dean Borello and Travis Deer are building their community thanks to Kanerahtiio Hemlock’s class at the First Nations Regional Adult Education Centre. 1:03

A garden for the community

The eight-hectare garden, about the size of 13 CFL football fields, sits on a controversial piece of land wedged between Highway 30 and St. Isidore Road, bordering the municipality of Saint-Constant.

As the long-awaited Highway 30 extension neared completion in 2012, the Quebec government handed roughly 200 hectares of land along the highway back to the Mohawk community, which the Kahnawake Mohawk Council earmarked for development. 

At first, all the usual ideas were put forward: a gas station, a warehouse, a casino.

Then in January 2015, Hemlock and his partner, Raven Swamp, came up with an alternative use for the land — an idea rooted in Mohawk tradition and culture.

Together, Hemlock and Swamp envisioned a garden in which all members of Kahnawake could participate, learn new gardening techniques and pass on traditions.

Half of what would be grown would be shared among the families who participated in the planting and care of the garden. The rest would be gifted to the community's schools, an elder's lodge, an independent living centre and other local organizations.

Hemlock and Swamp consulted with the people of Kahnawake to get their approval, going on the radio, placing ads in the local newspaper and speaking with elders.

The response was overwhelming.

"There wasn't one person that said no," Hemlock said.

With the community on board, the pair announced they'd break soil in the garden on May 15, 2015 — Planting Day — and have been growing crops there ever since.

Kanerahtiio Hemlock, left, watches as Concordia Human Environment students Geneviève Nadeau Bonin, centre, and Alexandre Pace dig up some soil in his garden to evaluate soil contaminants from nearby Highway 30. (Joseph Coppolino)

Improving health, food security

For Hemlock, the garden has brought Kahnawake community members together in ways he never expected.

"We have traditional people and non-traditional people; we have Catholics and non-Catholics; we have young people and old people," Hemlock said.

The project was engendered, in part, by the rise of worrisome health issues in Kahnawake, such as diabetes.

"One thing that would benefit everybody is our own healthy, traditional, organic food," said Hemlock. "It's empowering if we are all growing it together."

Moreover, access to fresh fruits and vegetables improves Kahnawake's food security, a topic often discussed within the community.

Kahnawake Mohawks have never forgotten what happened during the 1990 Oka Crisis.

Encircled by protesters, police and, eventually, the Canadian military, they were essentially trapped on the reserve for much of the 78-day standoff triggered by a land dispute in Kahnawake's sister community of Kanesatake.

Food quickly grew scarce.

From Swamp's perspective, the crisis forced the people of Kahnawake to realize depending on outside sources for food can be risky.

"It taught us we need to take this into our own hands," said Swamp.

For gardener Rateriios Cross, the community project represents the opportunity to provide for themselves using the knowledge passed on by Mohawk ancestors.

"It's better to have your own knowledge of growing your own food," said Cross. "You can't rely on Walmart or Super C."

"That's the main goal," said Swamp. "We are becoming more independent."

Cultivating culture and tradition

Four planting seasons later, the garden has fulfilled its founders' desire to offer more than just fresh vegetables.

It also plays a vital role in reviving Mohawk gardening traditions and keeping them alive for future generations.

To open the planting season, Kahnawake women sing a seed song to the spirit of the plants while giving thanks for the upcoming harvest.

Before the community garden was launched, that ceremony took place indoors, in the community's traditional spiritual meeting place, called the Longhouse.

"It's just not the same," said Swamp. "It's really powerful to have the women open the garden, in the garden."
Teacher Raven Swamp, centre, shows her students, left to right, Konwatsienhóntion Horne, Teiakotenharó:se Montour and Teierahkwénhawe Montour how to remove seeds from dried corn. (Miriam Mokrusa)

Moreover, Swamp and other educators are teaching younger students how to sow seeds, and they organize field trips to the garden so the children can learn how to grow and harvest food.

"We have to teach our children and bring back the knowledge of how to start a seed and nurture it until it becomes food," Swamp said.

Once corn and other vegetables are fully grown and harvested, students are encouraged to use the whole plant.

They learn how to make moccasins, dolls and rugs from the corns' husks and silk, and they use the corn kernels to make a traditional meal called mush — essentially, a cornmeal porridge.
The Three Sisters, composed of corn, beans and squash, are traditional Mohawk staples. When planted together, beans climb the corn stalks, while the large squash leaves create shadows that prevent weeds from invading. This is also known as companion planting. (Miriam Mokrusa)

In so many ways, said Swamp, the community garden is helping to preserve traditional knowledge and gardening skills that can be passed on from generation to generation.

"You can see this cycle. The elders are passing on that knowledge to us and we are passing it on to our children," she said.

"That's how a community should be."

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      Feeding Montreal is a collaboration between the Journalism Department at Concordia University's journalism and CBC Montreal.

      Working in small teams, students in the department's graduate diploma program found and produced original stories about the political, economic, social and personal relationships Montrealers have with their food.

      The students spent the winter semester developing their stories in text, audio, video, photography, infographics and maps.