As part of a university course on the theme of “Ethnology and environment” being given at Université de Montréal, I looked for a place where we could actually experience what we were talking about in the course, namely the distinctive features of the connections between a population and its environment. The First Nations Garden struck me as a wise choice, and so in 2014 a partnership was formed with Sylvie Paré, a cultural officer at the First Nations Garden. This made it possible to bring along students from different cohorts so that they get to experience in an immersive way the importance of stepping outside their own representations and of being attentive to what others may see and feel. In that framework, fundamental issues are addressed: that the idea of nature is not self-evident; that indigenous people see the forest through specific perspectives; that the image of the ecological Aboriginal can sometimes be a heavy burden to bear.
First and foremost, a get-together
Far from classrooms, this learning takes place in get-togethers.
A get-together with the First Nations Garden, to start with, a place it feels good to visit in the autumn, a place to walk round in and get away – if just a little – from the city and from university, a botanical, architectural and also political achievement resulting in something that seems so “natural.”
Also, a get-together with those who make up the Garden: Sylvie Paré; Stefano Viola, a gardener there since the very beginning; and lastly the guides. For three years our guide has been Sylvain Verreault, an Innu facilitator who has seen the Garden take shape. His presence and his words are essential: he allows us to see the Garden in a different way.
Nature without clichés
From one ecosystem to the next, from maple groves to the spruce stand, and then to the Arctic space, Sylvain takes the time to stop and explain. In successive steps he speaks to us of his experiences in the woods; he describes the views of the elders and provides evidence that makes it possible to differentiate among First Nations. And in so doing he lets us know what the woods represent for him and his family. At the same time, he cautions students against stereotypes, illustrates the diversity of indigenous people in Québec, and explains that he is not a guardian of nature.
And the message gets through more effectively than in class! To sit down on a bed of spruce branches, to sense how comfortable and fragrant they are while discovering chapters from Sylvain’s history, his childhood in the woods, how important it is for him to go there and revitalize himself – all this strikes me as a special privilege. With incredible generosity, he gets us to see the woods through his eyes and appeals to our other senses: smell, and touch. In educational terms, this visit is an essential moment, not only as a teaching tool but from the relational point of view as well.
This is also a space where the usual terms of encounter between aboriginals and non-aboriginals are somewhat modified: visitors have come a long way in order to go “into the woods”; the facilitator welcomes them and guides them to “our place,” and that provides a basis for a more measured dialogue.