Elders’ Lodge features culturally-relevant garden to help improve food security

September 16, 2022
The community garden in the courtyard of the Central Urban Métis Federation Inc. Round Prairie Elders' Lodge in Saskatoon.

This summer, Central Urban Métis Federation Inc. President Shirley Isbister has been enjoying healthy snacks from the Round Prairie Elders’ Lodge garden. She said that just the other day, one of the Elders brought her a bag full of fresh, crunchy radishes.

“They love it,” she said. “They want more gardening space and one section for just traditional medicines that they’ll grow.”

The community garden at the Lodge is central to the extraordinary shared courtyard and acts as the heart of the building, with the south-facing apartment balconies and indoor community space looking out over it. 

Big Block Construction assisted CUMFI with obtaining project financing, then provided design-build  services on the Round Prairie Elders’ Lodge, which broke ground in spring 2021. Thanks in part to the use of modular construction technology, the first Elders moved into the building in December 2021, and the garden was planted for the first time in spring 2022.

The garden, along with many other features of the building, were incorporated into the design thanks to early consultations with Elders from the community — a step in the development process that Big Block has found to be crucial to creating purpose-built spaces that will serve communities for generations to come.

Métis architect Jason Surkan with David T. Fortin Architect took the lead on the landscape drawings and landscape plans for the fruit trees and planters, and he says it’s rewarding to see the Elders getting to harvest the garden so soon.

“To see it being used warms my heart,” Jason said. “That was the intention and goal of that space — to provide Elders with space for gardening.”

The importance of food security

Jason has a deep connection to the land and the importance of food security, with his family procuring up to 95 percent of their food through hunting, fishing, gardening and foraging. His 84-year-old grandmother still lives on the farm and gardens, his parents have a large family garden, and he has a garden at his home in Christopher Lake, Sask., as well.

“It’s a different life for an architect!” he said. “But it’s great to be able to do these projects for Indigenous communities and bring my lifestyle into the city.”

Food security is defined as having consistent access to safe, nutritious food that meets dietary needs. In Canada, there are many barriers that prevent people from accessing nutritious foods including affordability, accessibility and availability. Historically and systemically, Indigenous traditions and ways of securing appropriate quality and quantity of food have been challenged, and the prevalence of food insecurity has been on the rise among urban Indigenous populations across Canada.

There is a strong connection between traditional Indigenous culture and land-based activities, and the garden at Round Prairie Elders’ Lodge is a resource that helps the residents maintain, strengthen and revitalize Métis culture.

“To see them having a space for that is really culturally important and it gives them mental well-being and spiritual well-being,” Jason said. “This gives them an outlet or opportunity to stay connected to their culture and have that land-based lifestyle in an urban setting.”

The courtyard has wonderful growing conditions thanks in part to a change made to the site plan early on in the process. Early designs had the courtyard on the north side of the building, which would have left it in the shade and exposed to the cold northwest winds that are prevalent in Saskatoon.

“l shaped the alcove and building so that it created a microclimate in that space all year round,” Jason said. “In the winter, it will be sunny and warmer, and in the summer it’s quite warm there.”

Spiritual connections

The Trottier Spiritual Room also looks out over the courtyard and includes a wide window to enjoy the view. CUMFI President Shirley Isbister says she’s looking into creating an indoor garden in the Spiritual Room for traditional medicines and other plants to take advantage of the warm southern sunshine the room gets all winter long. 

The health and physical benefits of the garden are clear — from the fresh food and the exercise Elders get maintaining the space — but Jason also points to the spiritual and mental benefits.

“It’s spiritually and mentally good for people to have that responsibility to take care of something like that,” he said. “For a lot of elderly Métis people, part of the fear of going into an Elders’ lodge or home in the city is that they lose their connection to the land. This garden mitigates that and makes it more comfortable for them.”

Community gardens like the one at Round Prairie Elders’ Lodge are allowing the residents to reap the benefits of gardening, even in an urban setting, and by keeping their culture and community connected, they are able to maintain a sense of identity and dignity. 

With all of the projects Big Block works on, we endeavour to put the people and the community first, building spaces that enhance the lives of the people who call it home.

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