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Garden helps and heals First Nations people
On a rooftop in Toronto’s busy downtown, a native garden with a sweatlodge, traditional plants and an area for a healing circle connects the city’s Native clients with their culture.
Designed by Levitt Goodman architects, the recently opened garden completes a three-year re-development project undertaken by Native Child and Family Services of a deserted office building at 30 College Street.
“The building just didn’t happen,” said architect Dean Goodman. “We had a year of consultation with Aboriginal resources, artists and historians who were familiar with Aboriginal imagery and ceremonies.”
Facilities manager Norman Clarke adds “As a result, we were able to incorporate significant cultural essentials into the lives of our city clients.”
The building’s green roof was part of the architect’s original, dual purpose, renovation plan. It would eliminate a Toronto hot spot roof by installing a roof top garden to reflect First Nation values.
Lack of funds postponed the project. Once back on track, and in anticipation of heavy materials required to build the garden, the roof was reinforced. As a side benefit, the now completed rooftop garden is an environmentally-friendly source of heating and cooling.
Access to the garden is by a maple staircase that winds through the open four storey and friendly building. Entering though glass doors one discovers a carefully planned garden oasis. A sweat lodge faces a healing circle area with its traditional fire box. Soft pavers lead along a pathway, past waving Ontario grasses to traditional plants used by the Anishnaabe peoples for centuries.
There is sweetgrass for ceremonial smudging, cedar for teas and medicines, Saskatoon berries for pemmican and tobacco for ceremonies. Entwined together and planted in the traditional manner are the three sisters, squash, corn and beans, the historical vegetables of local tribes.
Architects travelled to visit Mississauga Ojibway at Curve Lake Reserve near Peterborough, Ont. to absorb the traditions of their First Nation hosts. The garden’s east facing sweatlodge is modelled after an original sweatlodge on the reserve. But, for fire regulations its rounded dome of brown rusted steel is not of traditional wood saplings, nor is it heated by traditional methods of hot rocks in an open fire. It is heated by the same fundamentals used in a modern Finnish sauna. This urban sweat lodge and neighbouring healing circle in the heart of Toronto give local Aboriginal peoples the same chance as their country contemporaries to benefit from traditional healing practises throughout the year.
Their roof-top garden is not the only innovative architectural trend. The building seamlessly blends together open and private spaces in a light and airy environment. Reception areas, long spacious halls, their maple staircase that connects each floor, a child drop-in centre and day-care provide communal spaces for daily activity and events.
A very contemporary cedar clad longhouse that incorporates Native cultural elements that architects absorbed from their Curve Lake experience is used for circle sessions and ceremonies.
Bev Costki, an artist with Seventh Generation a First Nation art group, interpreted traditional designs for the many frosted glass windows and for the main cement floor. Then Debbie Hawkins, a graphic designer, took these designs of birds, fish and animals to the scale required for a four story building.
It is the first building of its kind in Canada that targets culturally relevant services and amenities to urban First Nation, Métis, Inuit and anyone with Aboriginal heritage who comes to the agency. It does this by creating a service model that is culture based and respects the values of Native people, their extended families and their rights to self determination. And it is the first Native building in Canada with a garden on the roof to extend these services.
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