Land-based education joins science and Indigenous thought
Originally published in the Maskwacis Drum magazine September 2018 issue.
Derek Bruno and Marsha Shack were unaware that an idea sparked over coffee would come to fruition. Yet, only a few months later, they submitted a proposal to have their organization, WIN EcoSciences, facilitate and coordinate a permaculture program at Ermineskin High School.
“To me, it took shape when Marsha taught me about permaculture. I began to realize that it was all related to how First Nations people talk about getting back to the land and reconnecting with our culture,” said Bruno, CEO of WIN EcoSciences. “It’s a necessary bridge to bring us back into our landscapes.”
The program started with a big idea to run a tiny home build over four years. Shack, COO of WIN EcoSciences explained that “we took the opportunity to pilot a small part, the Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC), and follow up with more projects later.”
Shack, a permaculture designer herself, had been in contact with Scott Hall, the food program teacher and coordinator at Ermineskin High School, as he was interested in doing a project around growing food. “WIN EcoSciences was formed out of the desire to teach people to grow their own food and to address food sovereignty issues in First Nations communities.”
Bruno explained that as an Indigenous lead land-based education organization, WIN EcoSciences’ name is inspired by the Cree value system.
“The end of every Cree value has “win” in it – Wahkohtowin, Sahkohtowin – we wanted a name that encompassed both cultural and environmental aspects,” said Bruno. “It’s more than just science; we are regenerative and eco-focused.”
Bruno said that PDC programs are based on traditional thought and philosophy, so it’s a way to get back to the land in a different way. “We feel and work with and observe Mother Earth at our fingertips and create connections. Then, we can see the abundance that Mother Earth will provide for us.”
Shack said that “permaculture allows us to see the natural cycles of Mother Earth and it gives us a new perspective on our lives and how the same forces govern us.”
Maskwacis experiences challenges with high poverty rates and difficult socio-economic conditions. “There’s no reason for people to go hungry when we have all of this amazing soil to work with,” said Bruno. “All we need to do is get the information to the people in a way that will show that they can have the kind of yields to sustain themselves as individuals and as families.”
Over the course of three weeks in June 2018, twenty participants learned about organic gardening, sustainable growing, food forestry, edible landscape design, and water harvesting. The PDC offered skills, knowledge and tools to strengthen relationships with the land and create productive systems for living.
Permaculture teacher Kenton Zerbin describes permaculture as designing humans back into their landscapes both physically and socially.
“We’re doing a lot of damage, and we’re useless when it comes to living on this earth,” said Zerbin. “We need to look at how to harmonize with nature. If we understand the sun, water, and nutrients – things that all life depends on – then we can create systems of abundance that allow us to thrive within our ecosystem.”
Throughout the course, which gained participants internationally recognized certification, the group started the construction of a permaculture landscape design for Ermineskin in partnership with Scott Hall and the Maskwacis Education School Commission (MESC). Zerbin created the design to fit with the needs of the school and surrounding area.
“I designed a system with nutrient-dense food, low maintenance, and water resiliency, to support Scott Hall’s desire to have local food in his programs,” said Zerbin. “It’s strategically designed for the school and community to use, with different plants fruiting at different times of the year.”
The food forest will yield a significant amount of food; goodland apples, ure pears, chokecherries, saskatoon berries, raspberries, goji berries, seabuckthorn berries, currants, and more. The garden beds will host a variety of vegetables and herbs.
“The PDC allowed us to work with Ermineskin and MESC to train individuals, create edible spaces together and to provide individuals with skill sets to empower them to do community and earth repair.”
Zerbin said the experience was empowering because he didn’t have to convince anyone it was a good idea. “These skills overlap with Indigenous heritage and worldviews, making it a marvellous opportunity to work together.”
Shack said that the program has been successful. “From the perspective of the participants, it means something to have work in the community that they can point to and say, ‘I did that,’” said Shack.
Shack believes that permaculture gives people in Maskwacis something to believe in. “Just a few weeks ago, a participant said to me as we gazed upon a lush garden bed, ‘look, we did something good.’” Shack explained that giving a community that exists in a constant state of grief something to look to, “provides a beacon of hope.”
As Bruno described, “permaculture is seven-generation thinking in action – it’s about planting a tree and realizing you may never see the direct benefits.”