Indigenize or die: reclaiming cities and traditional lands

By Fernando Arce

The concrete buildings and streets that surround our Canadian cities hide a history of colonialism as well as vast swaths of green spaces and traditional lands that once flourished. That’s why a Metis man is now using traditional Indigenous practices to help others not only reclaim these lands, but to care for them throughout generations.

“It’s not just a tree-planting exercise, and it’s not just a call for people to come spend a few weeks and then go away,” Anderson told attendees during the fourth installment of the Indigenize or Die series. “We’re actually asking how Indigenous people in those neighbourhoods can reestablish a relationship with the land and with their own reintegration and healing as people.”

Anderson addressed about 50 people at the Apr. 27 event, held at the OISE’s Peace Lounge, at 252 Bloor St. W, in Toronto. The monthly series, held by Unify Toronto Dialogues and co-hosted by Kevin Best, of Haudenosaunee and Celtic descent from the Anishinabeg of the Martin Clan, through adoption, explores environmental sustainability through Indigenous teachings presented by featured Indigenous speakers.

Meant to provoke discussion, the series’ title – Indigenize or Die – alludes to the urgency of curbing climate change.

“The prophecies say that unless we radically change the way we do things,” said Best, “unless we re-indigenize, then it will be too late.”

Anderson is the co-founder of the Naadmaagit Ki Group, which means “Helping the Earth” in the Anishinaabe language. It focuses on the “popular restorative use of urban lands based on indigenous principles, knowledge and practices,” according to its website.

The most important aspect of this work, Anderson noted, is that it takes serious commitment to build a relationship with the land. Building that relationship is more than just an “environmental project,” he stressed; it’s about “building on (the) strengths” of what it means to be Indigenous.

“We won’t be defined by our deficits. It’s not an equity issue. Being Indigenous doesn’t mean being represented at the table. It’s not what it’s about. It means something else: it’s a way to engage,” he said.

Along the Humber River, starting south of Eglinton Ave., and stretching all the way to about Lawrence Ave., Anderson has already begun that engagement, having been approved by the city to restore about 50 acres of land. So far, Anderson and community members have worked on about five, though he admitted the possibilities of what can happen with those 50 acres are vast “if indigenous people are present and living according to (their) cultural teachings, traditions and responsibilities,” he said.

Of course, the work has its challenges.

One of them is interpreting treaties and covenants, and knowing how to deal with the right authorities, including municipal ones or land-owners with orphan – or abandoned, untended – spaces, for instance. However, he said, there are people in the community with experience and who “have some wonderful directions” who can help.

But perhaps the most sensitive aspect is how to grow cross-cultural relationships so that more non-native people can participate without belittling the scope of the project. In other words, how to ensure that as the participants grow and diversify, the endeavour doesn’t become an “environmental project” but continues being an intimate, relationship-building experience based on Indigenous teachings.

“A lot of people are just starting to come out and sit by the fire and recover (and heal). So as elders are… inviting more and more people down, we’re being careful about how we develop cross-cultural relationships,” Anderson said.

This includes beginning every event with ceremony. As Anderson explained at the beginning of the event, as he concluded his prayer, ceremonies are “an important part of how (Indigenous peoples) like to start things…(by) acknowledging there is a beautiful spirit creator  that fills everything with life.”

“If we just went in and brought a bunch of shovels and trees, and called it an environmental project, nobody would come back,” he explained.

The ceremonies are complemented by teachings of traditional agricultural methods such as planting the traditional Three Sisters Mounds, which consist of the three main crops consumed by various Indigenous Peoples: Winter Squash, Maize, and Climbing Beans.

“If you build this the right way, (the soil) will increase in fertility over a 20 year period,” he explained, adding that the goal is to have people take ownership of these mounds so that they may care for the land through generations to come.

“And we’re actually seeing some small number of women with children…saying, ‘This is going to be  my mound.’ And that’s huge, because it’s a 20 year commitment,” he explained.



The Naadmaagit Ki Group has also been working towards getting more Indigenous youth from the city involved, particularly as some jobs start coming out of the enterprise, given that there is hard labour involved. In the neighbourhood of Western and Rae, for example, elders have been building relationships with the community by holding annual celebrations, ceremonies and feasts, and are planning a possible Indigenous music festival for either 2017 or 2018.

“So there are actually going to be jobs. And that’s critical,” said Anderson.

Education is also key in teaching youth the commitment that goes behind caring for the land.

Through events like fishing or planting excursions, or even simple parties, kids are being involved from the beginning stages. Invasive plant removal has also been quite a hit among kids, said Anderson, who’s been teaching them how to plant some crops to protect others. The idea is to get them interested and committed to caring for the land throughout their lives, not just during a weekend exercise.

“What these youth need to hear is that someone’s there for them,” he said.

“The land is traumatized, the land is alive, the land has spirit, and the land is suffering, just like we are. Our healing, our connection, our recovery, our resurgence, cannot be separated from this. So when we’re going into these sites, we’re healing ourselves and healing the land.”

Medicine, therefore, is also important. Or, rather, how to properly harvest and use it.

“What does it mean to ask plants for healing? It’s not just about pulling it out of the ground and cooking it up. There’s a whole lot of cultural knowledge and healing that goes in the process of learning about that,” he explained.

Anderson stressed the point that the group is not militant, and they are not planning to “invade your land and take it back.”

They are working with municipalities and land-owners who have orphan spaces to simply put them back to use as community gardens. This happened in 2013, when KIG helped restore an unattended yard of an old church near Dufferin and Dundas streets into a medicine garden. It even won the David Suzuki Foundation Award that same year.

Anderson encouraged anyone preoccupied with restoring environmental sustainability – indigenous and immigrant allies alike – to begin by looking for the orphan green spaces that abound in our concrete cities and start restoring their natural state and beauty.

“Build respectful alliances and work or do something in some area where you can have some impact and begin generating a discussion. For me, it’s how do I keep a healthy relationship going with something that’s positive?… find something that feeds your soul.”

The next event will be held at the OISE’s Peace Lounge on Wednesday, May 25.

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