My Gardening Journey

black and white sketch of 3 strawberry plants growing

Weeding out colonial ways and reclaiming my roots

By Tresanne Fernandes

Growing up, every summer I would find myself in the airport bathroom in London disposing of plant cuttings. I felt bad that Nana had taken the time to prep them. I felt worse on the phone a few weeks later when she would ask me how the plants were doing. I didn’t want to garden and I wasn’t allowed to cross back to North America with them anyway. I think eventually she picked up on the fact that we didn’t share that hobby. But, since 2018 when I started gardening, I’ve learned a lot of lessons. I’m left to wonder which ones she wanted me to have. 

Survive 

In the 1930s (or 40s?) my grandfathers both left Goa, India and went to Uganda and Kenya for better job opportunities — to increase the likelihood of their survival. In 1948, my Nana and Grandma followed to get married — to increase the likelihood of survival in the long run. My parents (Goans born in Kenya and Uganda) received a good education and then 9-to-5 jobs in the western world for survival. 

I finished university and never got a full-time job, so I decided to scrap that plan. I started working part-time gigs and gardening here on Turtle Island as part of my long-term survival strategy. I don’t see a 9-to-5 as a secure guarantee of money. I see racist hiring (and firing), and a lack of work-life-play balance, if I were to be offered a “real job”. I fear a 9-to-5 will only come with imposter syndrome. I see cuts to funding for typically secure jobs. I may as well learn life skills and balance part time jobs.

Growing food was not something my parents did — their survival was sustained through buying food because they had money from their jobs. Like many brown immigrants in North America, their focus was on education and trying to get that “Canadian work experience”. To fit in was a good path to survival for them. And somewhere buried in my parents (and myself), there might live a fear of being looked down upon for farming and/or not having a 9-to-5. Shadism in Goa relates to people being dark if they worked in the paddy fields, so working in the fields was  frowned upon. My parents decided to buy food, not grow it. Most of the food I consume, I buy. For me, gardening takes a lot more time and energy than obtaining the money to buy the food. But that may not always be true. It’s empowering to know I can grow food. I was reminded at an event hosted by Rootcare that people of the diaspora have developed the skills to use what they have and what’s available to them. My Nana grew food in Kenya and England. She connected to the lands wherever she went. I think she wants me to as well. What is the point of surviving if I’m not also connected to the land and water? 

Surviving and thriving on other people’s land 

In 1972 my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and parents left Kenya and Uganda out of fear of being killed. We don’t talk about that much. We also don’t talk about what it meant that, before 1972, Goans could settle in Africa and take jobs from Ugandans and Kenyans. Or that now we’ve settled in Canada — we’re settlers in Canada — we’re here taking survival from Indigenous people of Turtle Island. Sometimes invasive species are just trying to survive, but that doesn’t justify them taking over. Replanting myself in Goa is always a valid option. My generation of brown people are starting to have discussions about the complexities of living here but we have a long way to go. White settlers and non-white settlers have to do their part to learn about and honour protocols and treaties as they were understood by Indigenous people where they live. The Europeans did a good job of dividing and conquering. 

I want to undo that. What protocols other than the Points System can I follow to be allowed here? How can I strive to survive without limiting other people’s ability to? Should I move back to Goa? For now I’m in Tkaronto, previously known as “the meeting place”, trying to figure out how to live out the Two Row Wampum Treaty and the Dish with One Spoon Treaty. For now I believe I can live here and do more good than harm. How can I be less like an invasive species and more like a companion plant, with a mutually beneficial relationship with Indigenous communities? 

For as long as I choose to live on lands that aren’t my own, there are a few things I want to do. I want to learn about my roots as well as the history of the lands I’m on and the cultures of Indigenous communities of Turtle Island. There is a lot to deconstruct and reconstruct in this colonial world. 


I want to develop a mindset of abundance and giving. I dream about living in community, growing food with like-minded people, and trading with the neighbours.


Gardening to weed out colonial ways and reclaim my roots

I reflect on the impact gardening has had on my life and I realize how much it has been threaded into my journey of reconnecting to my roots. 

  1. Colonizers try to kill us off and destroy our relationship to the land. Gardening to survive is an act of resistance. They want us to rely on the systems they create but we learn to sustain ourselves.
  2. As I opened to the plant spirits, I started to allow myself to open to my ancestors. I pour water intentionally as an offering in my backyard. I am reminded there is another way of being in the world. In Goa, the Portuguese colonizers introduced Catholicism and likely beat out other spiritual practices of my ancestors. I don’t know what those were but I’d rather create rituals through intuition and connecting to ancestors than practice what the colonizers forced on my people.
  3. My right brain is important too — I want to allow my creativity to flow, feel my emotions and listen to my intuition. Post-university degree, I learned the importance of moving away from left-brain — linear and analytic — thinking. In the garden I am free to be myself. I grow my emotional awareness. I calm my nervous system when I run my fingers through the soil. I breathe slower. It’s fulfilling to work with my hands and I’ve started to value what I most dreaded in school — the arts. The right brain is what the colonizers didn’t want us to use. I’m the first generation of my family allowed to use my left hand (controlled by right brain). Uncle Ernest was Nana’s helper in the garden. As a child he was beaten for using his left hand. As an adult he was pitied for not having a “normally” functioning left brain. But he was so mindful — he made everyone laugh, and when we visited he would stand up mid-conversation and dance and sing. I wonder if he pitied us for not using our right brain more. Sometimes I pity white men for not seeing the true beauty of the cultures which they suppress/suppressed.
  4. I know some things like Catholicism were from the Portuguese, but other things — like what grows in Goa — have not changed. Thinking about the land there makes me certain that I can know some aspect of my culture that existed pre-colonization. I may not grow coconuts or rice. But I can use rice as an offering.  I played with and then mulched my plants with coco coir, a product made from coconut husks that is commonly used for gardening. My family has always used coconut heavily when making Goan sweets at Christmas time and now I will do it with more pride. The shame around eating rice and curry disappears.
  5. I want to develop a mindset of abundance and giving. I dream about living in community,  growing food with like-minded people, and trading with the neighbours. I want to move away from the western fear of scarcity and isolation that often fuels greed and individualism. Initially I wanted to garden because my (white) activist friends used to talk about the importance of growing food for oneself when civilization collapses. In my body is a very human and intergenerational fear of landing in a new place and not being able to survive. But I’m also learning to trust the Earth’s abundance. I’ve seen a whole African violet plant grow from one leaf. Plant cuttings are amazing. I’m also seeing the abundance and resiliency of my family who kept bouncing back after migrating. And the resiliency of many Indigenous people and communities on Turtle Island who survived so much trauma. And I’m seeing the importance of community. I recognize that my privileges of living with my parents and having light brown skin make it easier for me to change my mindset to one of community, trust, sharing and abundance. Gardening also helps me with this.
  6. Life is seasonal, not linear. I’m learning to nourish myself with what’s available now. 

In the last few years of my Nana’s life, she used to sit in her wheelchair by the window so the sun would warm her back. In my backyard I have a chair in the East that catches the rising sun. It faces the blackberry bush and hydrangea bush, two of her favourites. There is a picture in the window of Nana and Uncle Ernest so they can watch it all grow. 


Tresanne Fernandes has roots in Goa, India. She is a new gardener, excited to grow food and medicine. She loves her jobs facilitating workshops and babysitting, where she gets to practice mindfulness, play, creativity and spontaneity. She is also starting out on her journey as a birth doula.

The Inaccessibility of Food Accessibility

by Julie Nowak

I’ve wanted to get into foraging for a while. It’s a wonderful way to connect with nature, help eliminate edible invasive species, and, of course, provide me with free food to eat. This is very pertinent, as I am disabled and without much of an income. While I’ve known about a couple plants I can forage, I need more hands-on learning to be able to really make foraging a consistent part of my diet. There is a monthly foraging meet-up in Toronto I’ve wanted to check out for almost a year; I haven’t been able to attend because it takes place in the evening, when I am at my lowest energy. Plus my social anxiety often prevents me from attending group events. I finally made it out to the last meet-up, however, which I was very excited about. We learned about edible roots like burdock, dandelion and garlic mustard. I quickly realized how much physical effort was involved, as I spent about fifteen minutes of exhausting, vigorous digging to get a little piece of burdock. It was a tasty treat to eat, but I knew I would not have the physical energy to visit the forest and dig up these roots – or at least not regularly enough to actually make a dent in my food costs.

The food justice movement is supposedly centred on accessibility – specifically food accessibility – with much dialogue around ways for individuals and communities to have increased access to food. While the long-term goal is to create a more equitable and sustainable food system, the short-term goals often focus on ways individuals and communities can more immediately access food – financially, geographically, culturally, etc.

Various approaches and strategies are touted as creating radical change and food access. Activities such as gardening, foraging, dumpster diving, bartering/volunteering in exchange for food, serving free food, cooking from scratch, preserving and bulk buying are highly praised within my activist circles. While I support these approaches, and participate in many myself, I would not put them in the category of “radical change”. There are several reasons for this, but I would like to focus on one in particular: inaccessibility. These quick-fix approaches require a multitude of things that many folks do not have: certain abilities, skills, time, energy, flexibility, space, upfront money, safety, privilege.

For example, I used to dumpster dive and barter frequently before I became disabled. Now these activities are too time and energy-intensive for me to do regularly. Other folks may not have the time or energy because of life circumstances, such as working two full-time jobs, single parenting, or being sick. Cooking, preserving and bulk buying require access to a kitchen and storage space, which many do not have. Gardening and foraging usually involve bending and physical labour, and gardens and forests are often not wheelchair-accessible. Many individuals (myself included) cannot usually accept free prepared food because of dietary restrictions.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t promote and participate in these activities. But we need to stop presenting them as something everyone can do. We are also delusional if we think we are fundamentally changing the food system through these particular efforts. Thus, I propose three ways to reframe the movement. First, we need to focus more heavily on the mid and long-term goals of shifting structures, such as policy change, poverty reduction, improving food sourcing, eliminating food deserts and building local agriculture. Second, we can simultaneously be implementing short-term initiatives, but we should creatively find ways to make them more accessible. Third, we must bring more voices into the food justice movement in order to be more inclusive and properly address inaccessibility.

These three propositions are not easy tasks, so let’s start by breaking down how to make initiatives more accessible. Here are just a few specific ideas of how you can make changes in your organizing to increase accessibility:

  • In community gardens, create wheelchair-accessible pathways and include raised beds so those needing to sit can participate.
  • When serving prepared food, cater to dietary restrictions (i.e. vegan, Halal, gluten-free, nut-free, alcohol-free, etc.) and clearly label ingredients. Consider providing options, such as serving several dishes with differing ingredients or using a buffet/build-your-own meal set-up so individuals can choose their own ingredients.
  • To increase access to cooking, preserving and bulk buying, provide kitchen and storage space. Also consider doing these activities collectively in order to lessen the upfront financial cost.
  • When accepting bartering/volunteering in exchange for food, offer sliding scale options. For example, require fewer (or zero) hours of work from someone with limited ability/capacity/time.
  • Share the bounty from your various endeavours (e.g. gardening, foraging, cooking, preserving) with those who cannot access these activities.
  • Before and during the planning of events and projects, seek out input from a variety of folks in your community to find out what initiatives are desired and how best to implement them in an accessible way. If you don’t have marginalized folks involved in your planning, you need to figure out why you’re not accessible to them.
  • Work creatively to come up with alternative ways of doing something. Inaccessibility and ableism are, in part, the result of a lack of thinking outside of the status quo, so get creative!

Accessibility means different things in different contexts. I’ve touched on just a few aspects of what it can look like in the food justice movement. Remember, though, that accessibility is an ongoing process, not a clear set of laws. If you view these suggestions as annoying rules to follow, you are missing the point. The purpose should be focused on people, not checklists. I admit it can be overwhelming to be faced with requests and recommendations, and I often feel incapable of accommodating everyone. Keep in mind, however, that it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. Attempting some (or even one) of these efforts is better than nothing. Of course, we need to strive to do more, be self-critical, and listen to feedback. That being said, don’t let the fear of imperfection prevent you from trying. It’s impossible to achieve one hundred percent accessibility, especially when there are conflicting needs. Yet we can continually work at it, doing our best to structurally make space for this evolving process.


 

Julie Nowak
Julie Nowak is a Toronto-based food justice organizer, educator and writer who focuses on the intersection of food issues, body image and disability. This stems from her personal experience of finding healing from disordered eating through therapeutic farming and involvement in food justice, as well as living as a disabled person after a brain injury. Julie enjoys gardening, vegan seasonal cooking, and walking in parks. You can follow her at www.seasonalbody.org

Claiming Our Clean Food Sovereignty

An Interview with The Black Farmers and Food Growers Collective

by Adabu Brownhill

Adabu: Who established the organization? When?

BFFGC: The Black Farmers and Food Growers Collective came out of the oppression of the Black Creek Community Farm located in the Jane & Steeles area, where infamous Jane and Finch is just south of the farm. The Collective was established by the Afro-farmers and local community members to address and dismantle racism and oppression as it pertains to our food system as well as the generational food oppression coming out of slavery. We are one of three local cross-cultural food access hubs in partnership with FoodShare Toronto funded through the Ontario Trillium Foundation and Access and Equity Toronto. We are still learning about some of our culturally appropriate foods from Africa and our vast afro food culture, we are also working to connect with other afro farmers in the diaspora from the Caribbean to share farming and food knowledge as it pertains to the afro-people’s experiences in the diaspora. The organization got started in 2013 officially after the Intensive Leadership Facilitation Training (ILFT), working to dismantle racism and food oppression in the food system as it pertains to the community. This training was done by “Growing Power” from Milwaukee and Chicago through the partnership with Foodshare Toronto local Empowerment Group (LEG), “Growing Food Justice For All Initiative.”

 

A: What is the main goal or vision of Black Farmers and Food Collective?

BFFGC: One of the main goals of the collective is to ensure that the “clean” (organic) food we grow gets distributed through collaborative partnerships such as pop-up communal markets in fresh food oppressed communities that are affordable and sustainable. Also encourage communal growing so food-insecure and oppressed members of the community can and will have access to clean and affordable local, culturally appropriate food that can be grown in Canada in the short growing season through collaborative efforts and participation.

A: Who is mainly involved with the organization? Do you have many participants from the Black community?

BFFGC: We are farmers, food growers, small food business owners and food-insecure families and individuals –eight members thus far. Our Collective presently are all Afro-people from the Caribbean, Canada and Africa. We get volunteers from right across the ethnic board. People have been stoked by what we’ve been able to accomplish this year, its magnitude, and the variety of crops we’ve grown.

A: Do you have garden space that you use to grow food? How does that work?

BFFGC: This year we rented a half acre of land from Fresh City Farms – a local organic farm that operates out of Downsview Parkc at Keele & Sheppard Ave, West. We had written formally to the Black Creek Community Farm steering committee in 2014 and made a request for an acre of the land to do the work we are now doing but our request was laid under the rug and locked away! We are now working towards our own farm and growing spaces in the city with future community collaborations wishing to address food security and food justice issues as they pertain to affordable and sustainable and other racialized communities.

A: In my experience agriculture in Ontario is extremely dominated by white people. What are your views on this? Do you feel that Black Farmers and Food Collective address the issue of environmental racism?

BFFGC: Yes, I agree with you but once upon a time we had productive and stable farming communities; this was how we fed ourselves and shared food with each other– trading through commerce and land ownership. After our younger generations left their communities for the big cities they abandoned their roots in the agricultural sector and assimilated into the wider food culture which has impacted us in a very negative way through many types and diseases and sickness. Historically we were also driven off land and much of  this lands  was used to redevelop middle to high-income communities, unfortunately just like like all the other oppressive tactics perpetrated against us these issues were swept under the rug! As a collective member I have the right to live, work, contribute, play and invest in myself and my community just as any other ethnic groups in Ontario and I can do it anywhere in any community I choose. This is what we do presently, we share space with such a high profile farm in the local urban sphere. Our encouragement to community is to empower them through a variety of engagements. We work with our community as they come and we meet them where they are presently but we ensure we leave them more empowered than how we found them through the work we are doing to dismantle racism and oppression and to empower ourselves and the community.

A:  Can you tell me about what kinds of things volunteers can get involved with?

BFFGC: Yes, we welcome volunteers to help us in capacities that they are knowledgeable or want to learn with us. We are still grassroots but are working towards developing and becoming an independent local cross-cultural food access innovation hub for Afro-people and other community members who wants to support our work and experiences.

For more information, check out www.blackfarmersto.wordpress.com


 

Adabu Brownhill
Adabu Brownhill (DurtyDabz) is a Black/Mixed, Queer, FemmeBro dedicated to fighting for Mother Earth and the Liberation of Black & Indigenous Peoples and All People Of Colour. She is a badass DJ as well as a passionate gardener. She strives to decolonize agriculture in Ontario and create farming/gardening spaces that are fun and kool for racialized folks. She dreams of a farm where People Of Colour be chillin’, bumpin hella beats, planting seeds, harvesting herbs and eating gourmet meals while making jokes and enjoying each other’s company. She draws inspiration from radical underground artists such as Junglepussy, Destiny Frasqueri (Princess Nokia), Jay Boogie and Le1f. Her favorite foods are spicy meat and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Shovel to Fork: Organic Farming

By Megan Kanerahtenha:wi Whyte

There is no doubt that eating a natural and pesticide-free meal three times a day is a healthier option than devouring that juicy one-dollar Big Mac from McDonald’s. While I myself grew up with healthy options available to me, the discussion around organic agriculture and cuisine became a passion of mine when my daughter was born. I did my research on which products were from organic sources by the stickers they bore or the companies they came from; I spent countless hours blending sweet potatoes or plums into an edible mush simply because I knew what chemicals were put into them. While making my daughter’s food in bulk seemed to save money, the fact of the matter was that spending an extra five dollars on a box of strawberries was drastically outside my budget as a new mother. I needed a new solution that would meet the needs of my daughter, my values and my pocket book. With the help my father who has a particularly green thumb (not literally), we started our own organic garden from heirloom seeds and trusted plant nurseries. We grew vegetables, herbs and an ever-blooming source of strawberries—many of which were put in the freezer to use over the winter months. Not only was this more affordable and sustainable, but it was grounding, beautiful and filled with all sorts of healthy connections that extended outside of just our nutritional health. The food tasted better too. It tastes real.

Granted, there are now more grocery stores and food supplement locations that are opting to include an increase in organic products for their customers, their prices continue to fall outside the budget of many low to mid income families. Organic gardening and organic farming can be a more sustainable and cost-efficient option for healthy food security. Community-wide organic farming can also create the opportunity to build relationships with the land and our culture as well.

How does organic farming build relationships to the culture? It starts at the beginning of life. It starts by honouring the natural world and our own bodies through ways we work with the land (not just on it). The land teaches us about ourselves through the investment we make to maintain our gardens. This relationship to the process then reflects our relationships to others. Like other healthy relationships, a good relationship with our gardens starts with care, patience and a drive to be understanding. We made sure certain plants received partial sun and that others received full sun. We are aware of companion planting and can determine which plants empower each other to grow and which ones could not function together. To protect our little seedlings, we plant certain flowers and herbs around our gardens that naturally warded off animals and insects and we continue to prune, weed and water them as they grow. We put a lot of our selves into our food and medicines. Sounds a lot like building a community doesn’t it? Our ancestors knew a lot about the land and how to care for it as a community; the land in turn knew how to care for us as well. It was a relationship between entities and not an entitlement to humankind. There was gratification and thankfulness throughout the process and past the harvesting season. For myself, there is that same gratitude from shovel to fork, knowing that our spaghetti sauce was made from home-grown tomatoes or that our salad was tossed with cucumbers and lettuce picked by our children.

 

The most satisfying aspect of it all was seeing my daughter, as a two year old, pick out the wild garlic or the pole beans and know that it was for food and for medicine. She loved them; she really did. I was and am proud to see her develop a strong and ancestral relationship to the land through holistic health. In this way, organic Farming can be cultural security as well. Organic farming has potential be the start of a community-wide reconnection to the land. In building a relationship to the land we are building a relationship to ourselves; our identity (from ceremonies to the ohenton kariwatekwen) is tied directly to land. In many ways, we are the land. This connection is not only essential to our identity; it expands to influence all other aspects of our indigeneity as well.

I believe, that in order to truly fight for our identity or even to negotiate land claims, we (and the generations to follow) need reconnect to our bodies in a real way. In reality, how can we hope to fight for land claims if we have never touched the land?

Organic farming can be a way to not only increase food security and address our major health concerns (diabetes in particular), but it can give our community a large-scale opportunity to live our identity rather than label it. I see it as community-wide healing, restructuring, and grounding. Granted, organic farming can be a time-consuming investment that may not fit into the lives, deadlines and obligations of everyone. But maybe taking that time to slow down is exactly what we need to stop moving so fast and learn to look again through the eyes of our ancestors.


 

Megan Kanerahtenha:wi Whyte
Megan Kanerahtenha:wi Whyte is a young mother, artist, art educator, and art therapist candidate from the Kahnawake Mohawk First Nation community. She is currently completing a MA at Concordia University in Art Therapy, with focus on healing multigenerational trauma and attachment through visual media. Outside of her schooling, Megan is actively involved with the Kahnawake Youth Forum, the Native Youth Sexual Health Network and the Indigenous Young Women’s National Advisory Board providing an arts-based approach to social change. Her main project, Skatne Ionkwatehiahrontie, is a young parents program that aims to support attachment parenting, explore sexual health and connect youth to cultural networks. Megan’s social work in these spaces also inspire her artistic development, having her art pieces reflect concepts of healthy relationships, indigenous ‘womanism’, as well as environmental, reproductive, and social justice.