Care of city’s ravines important to Indigenous people

It’s said that Toronto has more ravines than any other city in the world. And yet to many city-dwellers our ravines, being out of sight, are out of mind too.

In our busy lives, crammed in by high-speed roads and tall towers, who bothers to remember that these green spaces are in easy travel distance from us, from the Humber ravine in the west to the Rouge Valley in the east?

Well, Isaac Crosby bothers to remember.

In fact, he spends his days year-round in one of them, the Evergreen Brick Works on Bayview Avenue in the Don Valley where he leads urban agriculture programming.

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After years as an industrial site, the brick works location was some time ago allowed to return to its natural state, and that’s where Crosby tends a special food garden, one that grows Indigenous foods — the kind that Canada’s First Nation people lived on for thousands of years.

For many of those early inhabitants, Toronto’s ravine systems were home. Crosby himself is an Anderdon Ojibwe-Black. He grew up on unceded territory south of Windsor, Ontario.

Now that the city wants to review its ravines manual with the intention of asking the Indigenous people for their thoughts about ways to keep the lands pristine, Crosby was asked for his views on the ravines.

One problem that needs to be looked at is the negative effect invasive species have on native vegetation in the ravines, he says.

“It’s a problem for our wildlife too,” Crosby says. “These species also do not support native insects, birds and mammals.”

Traditional medicines lost

Invasive plants include Norway maple, Japanese knotweed, dog-strangling vine and garlic mustard.

And with the depletion of native plants we also lose traditional medicines, Crosby points out. “Our connection to these can be lost.”

Medicines that grow in the Brick Works ravine, according to Crosby, include cedar trees, sweet grass, white pine, elderberry, rose hip, wild ginger, sugar maples, endangered butternut trees, black walnut trees, sumac and red willow.

A quick internet check claims tea of white pine needles is helpful to promote expectoration and removal and thinning of mucous from the lungs. Black walnuts and elderberry are high in anti-inflammatory compounds.

Crosby works from spring to the first snowfall in his Indigenous garden. In winter he’s in the greenhouse where he gets plants started for next year’s garden.

He sees lots of wildlife such as geese and ducks and even the more elusive ones such as deer, rabbits, beaver and muskrats. Deer nose around his garden, but it’s the rabbits that are the unofficial “taste testers” of his produce.

He doesn’t mind. In fact, he deliberately over-plants so that rabbits can have a share.

“They need it, too. I plant way more than I need. If I was an animal and saw that garden I’d think ‘wow, that’s a smorgasbord of food.'”

Some of his Indigenous foods are pawpaws (an edible tree fruit), sunroot (artichoke), groundnut (peanuts) and the three sisters — corn, beans and squash. They’re called the sisters because they grow conveniently together, with the beans climbing the corn stalk and the squash giving ground cover for their roots.

Aside from hunting, gathering wild rice (long gone from the ravine) and fishing the ravines provided early people – going as far back as the end of the last ice age that gouged these deep crevices — with places to live and stay safe from invading tribes and, later on, settlers.

“You could hide in the valley,” Crosby says.

Stress relief

He says working on the land where his Indigenous ancestors once lived feeds his spiritual side. “It makes me feel proud and honoured that I am allowed to do this work and to showcase it and bring the people back to the ravine and rethink our connection to it.”

Working amid nature, he said, has done wonders for himself. After tackling crowded TTC vehicles to get part way to work, he then does the half-hour walk down into the valley from Broadview Avenue.

“That 30-minute walk … adds so much stress relief. My mental health is better. My personality, my anxiety that had been there taking the crowded TTC was all gone. I would show up to work more peaceful, more calm and ready to take on the day.”

His advice for those reviewing the city’s ravine stewardship manual?

“Seek out the knowledge and wisdom of the Indigenous people. Seek out the earth workers, seek out the earth helpers. We all have a price to pay for our ravines system being sick,” Crosby says.

“The Indigenous people knew how to take care of the ravines.”