Culture & Lifestyle

Toronto’s Spirit Garden to help residential school survivors heal from trauma

A new garden is being created at Toronto’s City Hall to honour residential school survivors and provide them with a calm, safe space to heal from the trauma they experienced within those institutions.

Susan Hunter attended St. Anne’s Residential School when she was eight years old. The now 66-year-old told CTV National News that the discovery last month of the remains of 215 children near a former residential school re-traumatized her.

“Every night we would cry ourselves to sleep,” Hunter said of her time at the school.

She says she was lucky to leave the facility, but her two first cousins were not.

“My aunt lost two children, they never came home. She was told that they had died of influenza,” Hunter explained.

While the road to healing for residential school survivors is a long one, some cities are looking to create safe spaces for them to do so, including Toronto’s Spirit Garden.

Toronto City Council allocated an additional $2 million towards the construction of the Spirit Garden, also known as the Indian Residential School Survivors (IRSS) Restoration of Identity Project, on Nathan Phillips Square in April.

The famous Toronto sign with the First Nation medicine wheel serves as the start of the garden.

According to the city, the area will be “a place of teaching, learning, sharing and healing,” with plans to incorporate various public programs in the future.

The city noted that the garden will also “create a peaceful, contemplative space to help advance reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.”

“The place is going to provide healing and calmness and education,” Hunter said.

The project began in 2018 and is expected to be completed in late 2023. The garden will feature a two-metre tall turtle sculpture to represent Turtle Island.

Andrea Chrisjohn, board designate at the Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre, says this will be the focus of the teachings at the Spirit Garden.

“She represents — she in terms of our First Mother — is representative of all things, of all people and it’s not discriminatory, it’s inclusive,” Chrisjohn said.

“We have to look at the plant life, we have to look at all elements of creation,” she added.

Chrisjohn noted that the educational aspect of the garden is also significant.

“It’s really important that we learn to be kinder to one another, be appreciative, that we learn from one another,” she said.

Gardens such as the one being constructed in Toronto have been popping up across Canada, including in Winnipeg and Edmonton.

The Spirit Garden is one of many forms of healing needed for residential school survivors, and Hunter says it is a necessary outlet.

“It’s time for us to tell our truth, tell our story and make things right,” she said.

Hunter added that that includes believing survivors and honouring them.

Dr. Suzanne Shoush is a Black-Indigenous primary care physician located in Toronto. She told CTV News that she has family members who suffer from intergenerational trauma caused by Canada’s residential school system.

Shoush said the Spirit Garden and others like it will showcase the resilience of survivors.

“This is something that will really highlight the fact that Indigenous people are here, we have been here and will continue to be here, and working towards healthy communities is really attainable,” Shoush said.

If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.


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