How the pandemic transformed one Montrealer's relationship to her backyard and her world

·3 min read
Gardening has got Montrealer Nadia Bunyan thinking about colonialization, sustainability and her connection to the earth. (Amanda Klang/CBC - image credit)
Gardening has got Montrealer Nadia Bunyan thinking about colonialization, sustainability and her connection to the earth. (Amanda Klang/CBC - image credit)

The grass in Nadia Bunyan's downtown Montreal backyard is thigh high and sways in the wind that's blowing on a warm Sunday afternoon.

She has deliberately let it grow wild this year, as her interest in cultivating the rest of her garden piqued during the pandemic.

"I see things pop up that are growing and I don't know what they are, but it gives me a chance to go and look them up," said Bunyan.

Bunyan is one of many Quebecers who took up gardening for the first time during the pandemic.

But as a fashion designer interested in sustainable production, her new curiosity about the things growing on her land reflects a long-held set of values "not just in my professional life but also my personal life."

"I believe sustainability enters every aspect. And for me, 100 per cent farming, gardening, understanding the land, nature, being stewards of the land, all of that plays into it."

So, in addition to the cucumbers, herbs and lilies now growing in her garden, Bunyan also planted a bed of flax seeds this spring, to see if she can grow the fibres that eventually get woven into linen.

She calls it the "seed to closet" process and says the experiment has even prompted her to think about having a farm one day.

Amanda Klang/CBC
Amanda Klang/CBC

Reclaiming a connection to the earth

Bunyan grew up in Montreal's West Island, seeing her mother cultivate a big garden at their home but she never considered doing it herself.

Gardening was a skill her mother had brought with her to Montreal when she immigrated from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean.

And, until the pandemic prevented visits between households, her mother had been the one planting raspberry bushes and roses in Bunyan's backyard

So, when the pandemic ground life to a halt, Bunyan found herself for the first time with both the time — and the motivation — to dig into the joy of gardening herself.

It also prompted new reflections on why she had waited until then to step actively into her garden.

"One of the things that came to the surface was an understanding of my attachment to land…also understanding the colonial history of farming, what was taken, opportunities lost. Why is it that I don't see more Black farmers, or farmers of colour?"

For the first time Bunyan began questioning her assumed identity as an urban person.

"I had thought that it was weird to be in the backyard, I now understand that actually no, it's truly natural. And even though I've been raised to think that I'm supposed to be this city person, I also understand that is a part of that colonial history."

Amanda Klang/CBC
Amanda Klang/CBC

Resisting by creating a refuge

These days Bunyan spends as much time in the garden as her busy life, as a professional and mother of three teens, will allow.

This Sunday she waters her vegetable garden, tends her hibiscus shrub, repots her aloe plant and carefully assesses the state of her flax seedlings

These activities are both absorbing and relaxing and they permit Bunyan to close her mind to other concerns.

"I can put aside so many stressors, and I'm not just talking about… worrying about retirement. There's also the bigger … issues, you know, talking about colonialism, talking about racism," Bunyan said.

Through gardening, Bunyan is finally granting herself the luxury of time and of space to take a breather despite the ongoing inequality of the world.

"We all need that space or that time or that place where we can just be. And when I'm gardening, I can just be."

And for Bunyan, this makes the simple practice of cultivating the soil an act of refuge and of resistance.


For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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