It is the nature of a forest to heal, thereby, what better theme for a project than a healing forest? After the 2015 Healing Walk in Ottawa, and prior to the release of the Truth and Reconciliation report, Peter Croal, a longtime geologist, and Patricia Stirbys, member of Cowessess First Nation and consultant, sat down to develop the National Healing Forest project together.

Central to the objective of the Healing Forest project is reconciliation and healing, with a vision to establish a network of healing forests across the country where survivors, families and all Canadians, can come together to reflect, meditate, heal and participate in ceremony to better understand the legacy of the residential school system, and move forward in a positive way. A forest, big or small, or a quiet green space is a wonderful place to heal and connect people to nature, as well as remind us of the human impacts on climate change. All healing forests are developed as grassroots initiative by communities themselves.

Until the Healing Forest project was developed, there were no designated places in the natural environment used as sacred places for reconciliation. Eugene Arcand, Advisor, Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Residential School Survivor, said of the project, “The Healing Forest project is important. It will help survivors and their families with healing and reconciliation”. Many elders believe that the first act of reconciliation involves the protection of land, and making sure that the sacred aspects of land are respected. The Healing Forest project is a step in this direction.

Research shows that walking in a forest can reduce stress, lower blood pressure and heart rates, boost mood and may even help fight cancer. The health benefits of forests is a key feature of the National Healing Forest initiative to bring healing to a nation and its people from the tragic history between the Canadian government and Indigenous people.

There are now eight healing forests in Canada with more in the planning stages. One is situated on the grounds of the All Saints United Church in Ottawa, Ontario and another embedded as part of a Knowledge Keepers Path created by Riverside Public School in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. An additional Healing Forest, developed in Winnipeg, was given the spirit name Kapabamayak Achaak Healing Forest by an Anishnaabe Elder, which translates to Wandering Spirit and had Senator Murray Sinclair, former Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, speak at its official launch.

The Healing Forest project has created many opportunities for increasing awareness and building better relationships. In February 2017, Patricia and Peter participated in a one-day art workshop in Regina, Saskatchewan at the request of the Regina School Board. During the workshop, young students from grade 8 to grade 12 created artwork dedicated to reconciliation and healing, which was then used as their contribution to the Healing Forest project. In recognition of the reconciliation potential of healing forests, the Royal Canadian Geographic Society (RCGS) has also integrated the Healing Forest initiative into its school curriculum to teach youth about reconciliation.

Any community or institution can create their own healing forest through thoughtful organization. By forming a small committee, communities can share ideas about location (public or private lands) and design, and work together with their local municipal government, community or landowner to set aside a quiet space for a healing forest. Ideas or concepts can include an outdoor gathering place for ceremony, teachings, meditation and prayer; planting of trees by non-indigenous Canadians to demonstrate unity and commitment to reconciliation or; a children’s park as a place to honour our children and celebrate resilience The creative ideas generated by each community can result in unique and rich approaches to healing and reconciliation, using forests and green spaces as the foundation.

For more information about the National Healing Forest project and how to develop one, please contact Peter or Patricia.