Learning about Indigenous Traditions in the Covenant House Rooftop Garden

On a recent sunny morning in the Covenant House Toronto rooftop garden, a group of youth and volunteers gathered in a semi-circle, and each brought a sprig of sweetgrass to their lips.

“Go ahead and taste the green part,” said youth worker Trisha Sullivan as she handed out one flat-leafed strand after another. “You’re going to see it tastes like vanilla.”

The group, which included youth currently living in the shelter, had gathered to learn from her about gardening from an Indigenous lens. The workshop, co-hosted by the Cooking for Life employment readiness program at Covenant House, took place in the run-up to Indigenous History Month in June.

One by one, Trisha taught those in attendance about the four sacred medicines - sage, sweetgrass, cedar and tobacco – and their significance in Indigenous traditions. The youth leaned in with interest as she walked through each.

Tobacco, she said, is a kind of currency – upon arrival, she placed it down in the garden because she was plucking from it to teach her workshop. When you take anything – a whisp of sweetgrass, a petal of sage - you must offer tobacco in exchange, she said.

“Sweetgrass represents kindness,” she said, adding that sometimes Indigenous people braid it and place it on the dashboards of their cars to remind them to stay calm and mindful of others.

Sage, she said, is used to purify a space and clear out negativity. This is typically done by way of “smudging,” a ritual carried out at the start and end of gatherings or during challenging moments.

Many people have cedar trees in front of their homes, she said, not realizing that it represents protection. It is often brewed into tea.

Trisha sprinkled many teachings throughout the talk, including one about the “red road” – that metaphorical line we try to stay on as we go through life. “We’re human beings so sometimes we veer off,” she said. “But we can always come back.”

“Yes,” one youth replied, “It’s always good to come back.”

After the talk, the youth got to work planting medicines in the Indigenous Garden and peppers and tomato plants in the other beds. Along the wall of the building, two of the youth, including one named *Tara, planted the three sisters: corn, beans and squash.

When it was her turn to speak as everyone reflected on the workshop, Tara was more animated than when she’d first arrived. “I wasn’t going to come today, but I’m glad I did,” she said. “I learned so much about the garden.”

Before heading down to the Cooking for Life kitchen to enjoy some traditional strawberry drink, each participant was gifted a tiny sage plant.

Tara hoisted her baby plant aloft and patted the top of it affectionately.

“I got plans for you,” she said with a grin.