Algonquin birchbark canoe maker Chuck Commanda held a successful mini birchbark canoe-making workshop, hosted on Zoom, from his home in Quebec. In an effort to adjust to health and safety measures required during the pandemic, Plenty Canada chose to expand the scope of its online educational workshops, viewing them as a valuable alternative to in-person events during this uncertain period. This new organizational effort, which began this past month, is designed to bring distant people together through hands-on arts education, but conducted online.
Since he was a young boy, Chuck learned and has practised multiple Indigenous art forms and disciplines, eventually earning recognition as one of the few master artisans remaining who build birchbark canoes in the traditional Algonquin style. The grandson of the renowned Algonquin elder and environmental activist William Commanda, Chuck has worked for many years to preserve and promote the art forms he practises, including birchbark basket making, storytelling, and Indigenous knowledge education, often done in partnership with Plenty Canada. This particular project enabled him to shift his activities to a digital space.
In order to successfully carry out such an event, a great deal of advance preparation was required. A week before the event, Plenty Canada packed individualized boxes for each participant, which contained all of the necessary supplies (wound up sinew, red willow freshly picked by Chuck himself, an etching tool, etc.). The participants were also given a Plenty Canada T-shirt and a small book on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action. Because of a need to ensure the natural boat-building ingredients remained fresh enough for everyone to use, these special packages were sent out shortly before the webinar. Despite two snowstorms (on top of pre-existing delays imposed by the pandemic), all of the participants from across Ontario received their packages in time to participate.
During the workshop the participants were given detailed instructions on how to sew the sinew into the side of the miniature canoes, attach the birch bark, and etch patterns into the canoe's sides. Chuck was present throughout in order to answer questions and provide individualized help, ensuring that each participant was able to create a lovely, personalized canoe to cherish.
Due to the success of this program, thanks to the combination of Chuck Commanda’s expertise and the organization’s digital specialists, Plenty Canada is planning on holding additional digital cultural arts training workshops in the future. These will be promoted here on our website and social media.
(Image: Screen capture of Chuck Commanda, upper left, master birchbark artist and canoe maker, who leads students in Plenty Canada’s Birch Bark Canoe Workshop. Also pictured are Sophie Handley-Girard, Haley Alcock, Draven Timmerman, Marilyn Capreol, Joanna Jack, Kathleen Godfrey, Lily Mae Peters, Trevor Fung, Randa Hassan, Emma Carey, Brooke Renaud, Dolly Roul, Sam Yee, and Amy Tenbult.)
For almost 40 years, Plenty Canada’s office has served as an important gathering place for cross-cultural work. Nestled within a 500-acre Algonquin nature preserve, bordered on the south by Ontario’s Mississippi River and on the west by Mud Lake, and featuring diverse ecosystems inhabited by all manner of plants and animals, it has long hosted visitors from its projects in Central and South America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and, of course, Canada.
An incredible amount of history is imbedded within the site, evidenced by the wear and tear on the main office building and its adjacent annex, a secondary building once identified for environmental research residencies, programming, and additional office space. Due to the deterioration of these buildings, several years ago Plenty Canada embarked on a campaign to reconceptualize, resource, and renovate its physical properties.
That work began in earnest with the arrival of capital funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation. But the stage was set years ago during visioning sessions held with world renowned Indigenous architect Douglas Cardinal, designer of numerous iconic buildings including the Museum of History in Gatineau and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. In 2008, Cardinal and Lee Bushey, an architectural student at the time, developed a holistic vision for the creation of an integrated structural and landscape complex, drawing up plans that have served as an important guide for what is now being called the Plenty Canada CampUs.
These current capital projects are designed to upgrade and repurpose the complex as a land-based learning centre. The main office building is undergoing a wide variety of renovations in order to better serve its evolving needs as an active space for environmental and Indigenous bio-cultural education. Originally built with energy efficiencies in mind, including burrowing the first level north portion of the building into the side of a hill, and installing large south facing windows to take advantage of passive solar gain, new upgrades are being made. These include wrapping the building in a new layer of wood fibre insulation and locally produced cedar siding, installing new high-tech windows, and replacing dated infrastructure equipment with energy efficient HVAC system mechanicals to meet Plenty Canada’s energy reduction goals.
Plenty is also expanding its pre-existing solar energy investments (including microFIT) by installing off-the-grid and net metering technologies. Even the water systems at the Plenty Canada office will be altered to become more environmentally efficient, made possible by funding for innovative drinking and wastewater management systems.
Attention is also being paid to finalizing renovations to the secondary building on the Plenty Canada grounds. The two-story building is both spacious and modern, opening up new possibilities for Plenty Canada to establish in-person residencies and expand its training options. After the electrical system and plumbing have been completed, the secondary building will be able to support additional office space, guest rooms, and a common area for educational programs. Once this building is activated, the organization will double its onsite operational and project capacity.
All of these renovations are united by the idea that environmental efficiency and sustainability should be the highest priority of any responsible renovation project. In this way, Plenty Canada hopes to inspire other community organizations, indivudals, and the youth who will eventually visit and spend time at the CampUs, urging them to to think about sustainable building options in their own lives.
The land-based learning centre will develop and deliver an Indigenous led curriculum that fills gaps in current secondary and post-secondary education. The centre will host workshops that teach students to merge Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Western science, a practice known as Two-Eyed Seeing.
Despite current COVID-19 limitations on gatherings that will no doubt remain in place for much of this year, 2021 will nevertheless be a time of growth and expansion for Plenty Canada facilities. As a testament to Plenty's continued commitment to environmental sustainability and education, you will be able to follow progress of the CampUs through regular updates in our Contact newsletter.
(Images: Plenty Canada’s main office in Lanark undergoes energy efficiency upgrades as part of the organization’s capital renovation project to create a CampUs for training and project management.)
In partnership with community groups and organizations, including Forests Ontario and South Nation Conservation, Plenty Canada planted 250 culturally significant trees on the traditional territory of Algonquin and Mohawk peoples in Shanly, Ontario. Dubbed “The Healing Place,” it represents the beginning of reconciliation efforts seeking to strengthen relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in support of sustainable and shared environmental initiatives.
The design of the Healing Place was created with the intent of representing practices acknowledged by both Indigenous knowledge systems and western science. Planted as a circular area modelled after the Anishinaabek Medicine Wheel, its quadrants represent the four pillars that connect life: Mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical. Furthermore, the quadrants also represent the four cardinal directions which both centre and guide all peoples.
The specific colors of the Medicine Wheel vary between cultures, but for this project the four stations of the site were colored red, white, yellow, and black. The species of trees chosen for the project were also meant to be broadly appealing in a symbolic sense. The four cardinal directions are highlighted through planting an appropriate tree at the edge of each quadrant (for instance, a red oak is planted due north). The interior of the Healing Place's centre garden contains seven trees, representing the Seven Grandfather Teachings. The outside area of the garden is surrounded by an additional thirteen trees, representing the Thirteen Grandmother teachings. The entire garden will eventually contain walking trails, so that The Healing Place can become a publicly available space for relaxation, education, and reconciliation.
The project began at a 2019 meeting of the Assembly of First Nations in Whitehorse, Yukon. Two members of the Assembly, Curtis Scurr and Eli Enns, discussed the possibility of offsetting the carbon they expended in order to travel to the conference. It was decided that tree planting would be an effective (and tangible) way to offset the carbon expended by the event. They brought this idea to Plenty Canada's Executive Director Larry McDermott, who then invited additional partners into the fold. Forests Ontario, which is dedicated to making Ontario’s forests greener, joined quickly and secured a location for The Healing Place through a partnership with South Nation Conservation, an agency that has a long and strong history in watershed management and sustainable practices.
Though the planting event itself was a tremendous accomplishment, Plenty Canada and its project partners hope to continue to expand their environmental conservation and reconciliation efforts throughout the coming years. The group envisions planting multiple “healing places” to provide tangible offsets that help community and business organizations hold themselves accountable for their own carbon emissions.
(Top Photos: 1) Bill Montgomery, Haida, Indigenous Education Lead with the Upper Canada District School Board and Chris Craig, Algonquin, Senior Forestry Technician at South Nation Conservation preside at ceremonies for The Healing Place. 2) Aerial view of the opening ceremony at the Healing Place)
For the past two years Plenty Canada has invited youth of all backgrounds, from ages fifteen to thirty, to attend a series of monthly Truth and Reconciliation educational workshops on the history and culture of Indigenous peoples. The workshops have mainly shifted to the online sphere this past year due to COVID-19, but this just meant that even more students from across the country were able to participate in a valuable cross-generational and cross-cultural dialogue.
The topics that the program covers change on a month-to-month basis, allowing for a surprisingly diverse curriculum. From Indigenous history, media, and the arts to land rights, water rights, and cultural resurgence, the program strives to ensure that a broad range of topics related to Indigenous community projects are covered at some point during the instruction. Each month’s workshop relates to a particular theme. For example, Larry McDermott and Jeff Beaver (wild rice harvester and member of Alderville First Nation) taught participants about the current ecological issues surrounding wild rice, complete with hands-on demonstrations of planting and harvesting techniques.
In addition to these workshops, every month the program holds a Tuesday night online meeting, wherein the participants talked about issues related to that month's topic and shared updates about their own burgeoning community projects. They are also given invitations to special events and community engagement opportunities, and are offered further support as they continue to progress through the program.
While these workshops are meant to be learning experiences in the short-term, providing the participants with valuable cross-cultural skills and knowledge, the Truth and Reconciliation Program is also meant to build leadership capacity within local communities. Through the support and guidance of the Elders and experts involved in the program, the participants are empowered to create their own community projects, thereby giving them the opportunity to address the issues that matter to them most.
The program emerged from the initiative of several students who worked for Plenty Canada in the past. They identified the need for such a project, and when funding became available from the Government of Canada through the Canada Service Corps, Plenty Canada jumped at the chance to support and create a program that would mobilize young people in the service of both conservation and reconciliation. Furthermore, the organization believed that the youth initiative would align with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action, specifically number Sixty-Six, “to establish multi-year funding for community-based youth organizations to deliver programs on reconciliation and establish a national network to share information and best practices."
Given that the Truth and Reconciliation Program has already been approved for a third year of funding, it's likely that Plenty Canada will continue to support these reconciliation efforts for quite some time. The organization will share registration details and other relevant information on its website in the near future.
(Photo: Youth participant harvests wild rice, Manoomin, during program held in Lanark, Ontario.)