We'koqma'q First Nation welcomes healing forest

We'koqma'q First Nation has been selected to join a network of healing forests as part of a project by National Healing Forests Initiative in partnership with the David Suzuki Foundation.  (Submitted by Ella Nicholas - image credit)
We'koqma'q First Nation has been selected to join a network of healing forests as part of a project by National Healing Forests Initiative in partnership with the David Suzuki Foundation. (Submitted by Ella Nicholas - image credit)

A Cape Breton community has created a space where people can meet to share knowledge and culture while trying to reconcile with Canada's dark colonial past.

Ella Nicholas of We'koqma'q First Nation said a healing forest now sits next to the area's popular Skye River Trail, which is used for walking, picnics and traditional Mi'kmaw ceremonies.

"We like to think that Skye River Trail is a place for healing," she said.

"The flowing river gives a person a sense of peace and contentment, the smell of the forest helps people rejuvenate."

Work underway on traditional long house

Nicholas said residents have long used the trail to better connect themselves to nature. Now, the local community wants more people to experience the power of the forest for themselves.

She said work is underway to make the site more appealing by adding a ceremonial fire pit and by constructing a traditional Mi'kmaw gathering place known as a long house.

Submitted by Rob Smith
Submitted by Rob Smith

The wooden structures were often a symbol of the presence of First Nations and the occupation of the territory several centuries before the arrival of Europeans settlers.

"We cleared out an area and we put a long house, a place where we gather for ceremonies and share cultural knowledge and stuff," said Nicholas. "It's a place to gather, like a safe place."

Nicholas said funding came from a $2,000 grant provided by the David Suzuki Foundation as part of its partnership with the National Healing Forests Initiative. We'koqma'q was one of 16 successful projects selected from 59 applications.

Idea came from Truth and Reconciliation report

Jode Roberts, a program manager at the Suzuki foundation, said healing forests were an idea that arose from the Truth and Reconciliation report in 2015. Although many projects are now in the works, there are at least 10 established healing forests across Canada.

"We're creating spaces not only for healing and for nature to be present, but also for ceremony and connection between settlers and Indigenous people," Roberts said.

Roberts said the network of healing forests are meant to honour residential school victims, survivors and families.

Submitted by Andy Gould
Submitted by Andy Gould

He said there are few parameters to creating a forest, which can be housed on public or private lands.

In Cape Breton, there is one other healing forest located next to Riverside School in Albert Bridge.

"Some are in wild spaces," he said. "There's no formal protections that come with it … our hope is that it draws more attention to these spaces."

Nicholas said she hopes the designation under the umbrella of the National Healing Forests Initiative draws more people to the Skye River Trail area.

Right now, its nature path is open to the public, although tourism programming is closed for the season, but will be reopening in May.

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