Beatriz Alvarez, Inuit Liaison           Kortright Centre, Vaughan ON         April, 2019


“Land is our first Teacher” began with windy weather and the threat of snow/rainfall which made it immediately obvious that nature takes it time regardless of all attendees’ eagerness to have spring-like weather greeting our day outdoor

an upward angled view of a tree line with a blue sky and cloud cover

We were greeted at the door and asked to choose a grouping of five sessions to attend for the duration of the gathering. I was given the opportunity to take notes about how the gathering and the workshops were organized, to assist with future endeavors for the Ontario Indigenous Centre of Excellence. 

I attended an outdoor gathering with the Ojibwe Elder, Jacqui Lavalley.  She reminded me of the Indigenous way of being—in grace, humility, awareness and thankfulness. Words that spoke to me were, ‘to start with the circle of the heart’; ‘carry goodness in front of you, beside you and behind you’; ‘start with well-being, then the mind’.

Outdoors in a field of grass surround by tree line, a drum sits in the centre with the Toronto Council Fire Youth Drum surrounding it. Participants stand around the drummers to begin an opening dance.
Opening Dance with Brianna Olsen, Briar, and Toronto Council Fire Youth Drum

The initial gathering was closed with drummers and dancers.

The Water Walk session, led by Vivian Recollet, took my group on a journey down a hill and along the Humber River. It was flowing swiftly, and its banks showed signs of stress. In this moment Vivian, reminds us to leave other thoughts behind: “Use your five senses. Notice the new life that comes with spring.” Yes, be mindful, I remind myself as I take a deep breath and look at the budding branches of the trees that surround us.

Banks of the Humber River surrounded by tree
tree branches symbolizing the environment surround the Humber River

Vivian, also points out that the bank is soft: “Notice the river. Water is good but we must respect its boundaries. We need water but too much can be damaging. Like anything, we have a responsibility of not to overdo things. Too much of anything is harmful.”  After this reminder, Vivian headed further along the river run to a calmer bend in the river. She sang traditional songs and spoke to the important connection of water as the ‘giver of life’ and women as ‘vessels of life’.

In the foreground of the photo there is a medicine circle with four quadrants. Each quadrant ha a photo of the medicine accompanied by its name. The four medicines depicted are: sweet grass, tobacco, cedar, sage. In the background there is a bright blue sky with a lakeside view of the forest. This is a sample of the many resources available for referencing the four sacred medicines.

The second session, we heard the journey of Henry Pitawanakwat and his personal struggle to accept his gift and responsibility of accepting a sixth sense. Henry, also spoke about how his research for his people’s history has led to his skill of speaking and teaching five Indigenous languages.

The last session of the day was an introductory session on the four sacred medicines (sweetgrass, tobacco, cedar, sage).  We learned about their properties, tips to grown them in a garden, and where their natural harvest can be found. 

I had a chance to have a serving of cedar tea. Yumm!


We began with another opening by Elder Jacqui Lavalley. It was a sunny day, cool from the wind but a beautiful day, nonetheless. Again, we gave thanks to the four directions and the gifts of the Creator.

A child and her mother stencilling footprints along a path in honour of Ojibwe ancestors who walked these lands
Stenciling Footprints

Today’s first session was by the Mississaugas of the New Credit Project called, “Moccasin Identifier”. The illustration and die cuts of four different types of moccasins were developed in collaboration with the Bata Shoe Museum. Teachings have been taken to local schools to pilot the project. The aim of the project is to provide the moccasin image in spaces, as a visual reminder that First Nations peoples were here first. Carolyn King facilitates the project. Stencils are made along pathways with children and other community members in colourful chalk spray paint or rolled on with washable tempera paints. They are intentionally not permanent markings.The last session of the conference was with Allan Colley, of Aboriginal Eco-Tours. I found this to be the most impressive of sessions. Allan began with a display of a Medicine Wheel Flag and his bundle of elements over each colour. Water (in metal vessel), mineral (rock) and fire (lighter) were on red. Humans are made up of these materials, he reminds everyone. Water has a consciousness and it is reflective of its surroundings. Fire provides warmth, heat, light, and energy but it consumes. Depending on what type of wood you feed the fire it could be beneficial, workable and approachable or it could be damaging: “With wet wood, what do you get?”, he asked of a six-year-old. “I think you would get smoke that would hurt my eyes.” Allan teaches and draws reflective parallels that are applicable to our lives. What kind of wood are we feeding our children’s fires?

Allan Colley, bent down close to the Earth to point out one of a the wide variety of edibles in the local eco system with adults and children surrounding him to learn
Alllan Colley pointing out one of the wide variety of edibles in the local ecosystem

On his yellow bundle, Allan displays many plants. “Plants always give”, he remined us. They renew and replenish, only if we tend to the garden and take only what we need.

The black bundle symbolizes the living of air, water and land—the animals that we share the earth with. Animals have less habitat and are less healthy because the gifts that have been given by the Creator are not being recognized and mindlessly destroyed.

And, the white colour, what does it represent? Humans. Humans have the ability of making choices.  Everything is subjected by our decisions and we are feeling the consequences of our decisions in the air, land and water. Allan mentioned that the earth was once paradise, but humans’ choices and laziness caused the paradise to be changed. Life was no longer so easy.

We must recognize and give thanks for all the gifts of the earth. The gifts cannot survive without our caretaking and mindfulness; conversely, we cannot survive without the other gifts. We are inextricably linked to the three other elements. We must bear that in mind ever more critically today.

Allan impressed everyone with his knowledge of native plants, the cycle of the seasons, and the interconnectedness of species, land and water. He advocates for the restoration of native habitats to preserve wildlife and plants and to combat the harm afflicted on the river systems and landscapes especially over the past 150 years.

So much knowledge and respect were shared and given at this event. It reminds me to slow down, be quiet, and observant. To start the day with heart and welcome the birdsong in appreciation of a new day.

I am fortunate to be given these opportunities for learning and have the chance to incorporate even the smallest of these teachings back into my own life. The Indigenous teachings are like light is shed on things that I have been aware of but somehow, before, they have been masked behind a veil.  Too often, we are so busy dissecting and categorizing we forget to see things in a wholistic way.

These gatherings also allow for the community educators of the Ontario Indigenous Centre of Excellence to share our successes, struggles, and allow for clarifications.

I had to take a note from my colleagues, as I shared some of my struggles with time. “It takes a lot of slow to grow,” they laughingly shared. AHA! Just as nature unfolds into another season in its own time, my role as a community educator needs to unfold in its own time, too.

Okay, I am slowly coming to acknowledge this lesson of ‘time’. Mother Earth, I have yet to learn so much.

Beatriz Alvarez
Inuit Liaison, Indigenous Centre of Excellence