The National Healing Forest Initiative

Stratos recently sat down with geologist Peter Croal to hear about the National Healing Forest Initiative (NHFI) that he and Patricia Stirbys, a Cree-Saulteux lawyer from Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, started in June 2015. The idea for the project came to Peter while on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s “Walk for Reconciliation” in Ottawa in May 2015. It was on this walk where he met and shared his idea with Patricia Stirbys, who was immediately interested in helping.

The National Healing Forest Initiative is intended to move discussions about healing and reconciliation to natural spaces, in addition to the conference rooms, buildings or other constructed spaces in which many conversations about reconciliation currently take place.

Although Peter and Patricia developed the initial concept, each individual Healing Forest is intended to be a grassroots, community-developed, community-led and community-managed process. The nature of each Forest is left to the discretion of the individual, community, or organization spear-heading its establishment. As noted on the NHFI website, “the only proviso is that the forest is created and used in the spirit of reconciliation, healing, shared understanding, and respect”. In addition, they ask that any Forests initiated by a non-Indigenous person be established with the involvement of an Indigenous community or individuals from the traditional territory in which the Healing Forest will be created. Peter and Patricia also ask that news about the establishment of a Healing Forest be shared with them so that the information can be included on the website.

The process for creating a Healing Forest is quite simple: an interested individual, community, or organization, with a piece of private land (a forest, garden or other green space) designates the area as a Healing Forest. Or, if the desired space is on public land, the individual / group must approach the land manager (e.g. City Council) with a request to develop the area as a Healing Forest. When public land is involved, interested parties often establish a committee comprised of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Several Healing Forests have been created across Canada already with the support and involvement of local Indigenous Peoples. In the province of Quebec, one man in the community of Fitch Bay offered up his property as a Healing Forest. The dedication of public lands as Healing Forests has occurred in the provinces of Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta.

In Ottawa, key individuals within Indigenous Services Canada (ISC)'s First Nations and Inuit Health Branch are currently in exploratory discussions to better understand the procedures and policy around land use in Tunney’s Pasture in the hopes of creating a culturally safe space, on the land, to hold gatherings, as well as cultural teachings with Elders.  Land adjacent to the Brooke Claxton building has been identified as a potential location for this space, one that could be dedicated as a Healing Forest. Lessons are being learned from ISC’s regional office in Vancouver where employees worked in collaboration with building owners to repurpose and redesign the landscape beside the building using Indigenous plants (those commonly used for medicinal purposes). This new garden has become a meeting space and sitting space for Indigenous and non-Indigenous employees.

Creating more ethical spaces to have meaningful conversation requires consideration of Indigenous peoples’ connection to the land. This was one of the key themes that emerged out of a conversational gathering with Indigenous partners and Federal government employees that Stratos, in partnership with First Peoples Group, convened earlier this year. It is a priority that we continue to hear surface in many aspects of our work and one we encourage our clients to take seriously.

Are you interested in creating a Healing Forest? For more information on the Healing Forest Initiative, please visit the official website https://www.nationalhealingforests.com or contact Peter Croal (peter.croal@bell.net) or Patricia Stirbys (pstirbys88@gmail.com).