First Nations youth grow cultural and culinary knowledge through gardening program

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First Nations youth grow cultural and culinary knowledge through gardening program

A program for First Nations youth in Calgary is using food as way to help kids learn more about themselves while trying their hands at gardening.

The Girls and Boys Clubs of Calgary runs the Iiyika'kimaat program as part of its Indigenous Initiative stream, which focuses on culture, social inclusion and fostering a sense of belonging in Indigenous kids.

Iiyika'kimaat means "to try hard" in Blackfoot.

Gardening has become an important and popular part of the program with kids using an indoor hydroponic system to grow different herbs and vegetables at their centre in northeast Calgary.

"It's fun, I get to learn how to grow stuff and I never did that before," said Shelly La Riviere, one of the Indigenous teens in the free program.

"I like planting the seeds and watching them grow, coming here day by day and we saw the tiny seeds first sprout a leaf. It's really cool," said La Riviere.

Organizers say gardening is just another way to support young people — who range in age from 12 to 21 — and help build their confidence and sense of identity.

Many of the kids are from local Treaty 7 First Nations in Alberta, with others from Treaty 6, which reaches into Saskatchewan, Treaty 8, which includes part of the Northwest Territories, and from First Nations as far away as Ontario.

Some don't know much about their own history and culture.

"They get some teachings that they may not have gotten at home or at school," said Christy Morgan, director for Indigenous initiatives with the Boys and Girls Club.

"They get their hands dirty, planting and they get to connect with our elders on traditional teachings like songs. Learning songs from other communities and the history behind that is super important for our young people and also benefiting from the food that they grow," said Morgan.

When the food is ready for harvest, the kids pick it with staff and prepare healthy meals.

"Some of our young people are just learning who they are as well, they don't even know. So it's about creating that space and time for them to explore who they are as Indigenous people and we help them on that journey," Morgan said.

Last year the program had way more space, benefiting from an outdoor area at the Renfrew Community Association.

Morgan said they are now trying to find a new small outdoor space closer to the centre that would offer more growing room than the indoor tower they currently use.

"We're in the 32nd and Barlow area so something within a 15-minute perimeter would be more beneficial so we can get the kids to the space and back in time," said Morgan.

Morgan said they only need a couple of square metres. Just enough for a planter or two.

Anyone with outdoor space or planters in the northeast can contact the Girls and Boys Clubs of Calgary.

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