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Native green

The new Mi’kmaq Heritage Garden on the outskirts of Truro shows how greenspace planning should work.


Driving north from Halifax you've probably seen the 40-foot statue of Glooscap. Maybe you've seen it and thought, "At last, Tim Hortons, next exit."

In the statue's shadow, on the outskirts of Truro, not far from the 102, across the road from an RV sales centre amid a business park, lies the Glooscap Heritage Centre. It seems an unlikely place to commune with culture and nature.

Gordon Pictou, who was a history teacher in Halifax for many years before joining the centre in 2009, is a senior heritage interpreter and program manager at the centre. He gives presentations on Mi'kmaq history and culture to school groups. So far he's found the location a little distracting. "It's really noisy," he says. "You don't feel connected to a society that was so connected to nature."

Inside the building there's a different kind of disconnection. There's a state-of-the-art multimedia centre there but, according to Pictou, "it doesn't lend itself to teaching about traditional medicine," for example. To teach these things in a meaningful way, you need a tangible space, something you can touch and smell, turn around in, get a 360-degree perspective.

The place needed a little beautification; that much was clear. And while he saw nothing wrong with beauty for beauty's sake, Pictou's teaching instincts kicked in. Why miss out on a perfectly good teachable moment? He decided to transform the grounds into an "authentic, pre-contact environment," with "indigenous trees, herbs, berries and medicinal plants which were used by our Mi'kmaq ancestors."

In February, Pictou started writing grant applications. He was delighted to get positive responses from Home Depot and Evergreen. On the suggestion of the centre's general manager, Sharon Touchie, Pictou met with Halifax garden doula Jayme Melrose in April. He was impressed by her encyclopedic knowledge of species native to this land. So was the rest of the staff at the centre, and within a week they hired her.

Melrose, not a Mi'kmaq person herself, consulted with a team of advisers. "Jayme consulted a lot of different people, everyone at the centre, people from Indian Brook; she talked to a lot of First Nations people---like Doreen Bernard." Bernard is a community leader who facilitates medicinal workshops, teaching how to identify and use plants for healing.

Using that inclusive consultation process and the traditional knowledge of the community, Melrose developed a vision for the Glooscap Heritage Garden, complete with layout and implementation plan. She also hired a summer intern to help with the landscaping and planting. Together they started planting in June.

The new garden includes native trees---birch, cedar, hemlock---to block sound from the highway and give shelter from the recreational vehicle business. They also suck back some of our human-made greenhouse gas emissions.

There is also a new footpath around the centre. Traditional medicinal plants (like sage) and foods (like wild berries and flowers)abound. Pre-European contact Mi'kmaq used these extensively. "But it's not just a traditional part of our culture," Pictou says. "It's still being practised."

"We're reconnecting to what the Mi'kmaq people used," Pictou says, "and getting rid of the industrial feel of the centre." Pictou says that traditional medicinal plants can be used to treat everything from diabetes to colds and throat irritation. And the garden won't be just a symbol---the community will harvest as needed.

Volunteers are putting the finishing touches on the garden this month, and it will be ready for visitation the first week of October. (Help complete the garden on Sept 25; email for details.) It will be used to teach school students, as well as students from the Nova Scotia Agricultural College interested in traditional horticulture. Traditional ceremonies, like smudging, will be held here.

Pictou hopes the new garden is just the beginning of a transformation of the whole area, of the very concept of a business park. "Hopefully people can see that a business park doesn't have to be industrial," he says. "We can be connected to a garden and trees, and live in a place with other things instead of mowing everything down."

It's an essential lesson for the mainstream culture. I hope our big city starry-eyed planners will visit the centre with open minds. a


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