Land-based learning deepens Health graduate students' knowledge of Indigenous land, rights and health

York University students in the Graduate Program in Health Policy & Equity recently had the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of Indigenous land, rights and health during a land-based learning experience taught by local Indigenous Knowledge-keepers.

Jessica Vorstermans

Jessica Vorstermans

The experience was organized as part of the Health Equity & Human Rights graduate course (HLTH 6220), taught by Jessica Vorstermans, assistant professor at the School of Health Policy & Management in the Faculty of Health. During the course, students examine human rights and health equity in terms of theory and legal frameworks and engage critically with research and concepts related to ways rights are lived out in specific contexts. The course also emphasizes the land acknowledgement with a different student facilitating the land acknowledgement each week, moving it forward in a way that furthers their learning and prompts action.

To deepen their learning, Vorstermans developed an experiential learning opportunity that would help students understand Indigenous ontologies and approaches to wellness, health, rights and land. She partnered with Joce TwoCrows and Jennifer LaFontaine of the Sweet Grass Roots Collective to facilitate the experience, which was funded by a York University Indigenous Teaching & Learning (ITLF) grant.

“I decided to include the land-based learning experience into the course as a way of working to decolonize the learning we are doing together,” says Vorstermans. “We cannot begin to read about, discuss, learn and engage with human rights and health equity without recognizing the land we are doing it from, our own positionality and relationship to the land. As a settler and someone who works to be an ally to Indigenous Peoples, I wanted to open space for Indigenous knowledges, ways of being and knowing as an essential part of learning on this land, right now, for each of us.”

The original plan was for students to visit the Black Creek Community Farm next to York’s Keele Campus, which is an urban organic farm that engages, educates, and empowers diverse communities through sustainable food access and develops leaders in food justice. Sweet Grass Roots Collective, an Indigenous group that carries out land- and place-based education, earthwork and arts, and storytelling, stewards a Three-Sisters garden and a medicine wheel garden at the farm.

However, after the most recent COVID-19 lockdown forced the farm to close, Vorstermans adapted the experience to incorporate both in-person and virtual learning.

Zainab Khan and Megan Bailey (Healthy Policy & Equity MA students) and some curious visitors, two niska (Canada geese)

Zainab Khan and Megan Bailey (Healthy Policy & Equity MA students) and some curious visitors, two niska (Canada geese)

A small group – comprised of Vorstermans, two students and the two facilitators – gathered on the grass near Stong pond on Keele Campus for a (masked and distanced) morning of learning. The day began with a Thanksgiving address, a traditional practice that provides an opportunity to connect with the universe and give thanks to all of our relations. After, students engaged in storytelling as Indigenous methodology, and also learned about Indigenous methods of reciprocal and honourable harvesting as they made an offering of sema (tobacco) to a cedar tree and then harvested cedar, which has medicinal and healing properties. The group also discussed Indigenous methods of carrying grief and wellness and thought about them in the context of COVID-19.

In the afternoon, the whole class met online for a live-streamed session from the land of Black Creek Community Farm led by TwoCrows and LaFontaine, who shared teachings about Indigenous ways of taking care of the land and demonstrated the honourable harvest of the sweet water from a maple tree.

Joce TwoCrows, member of Sweet Grass Roots Collective and facilitator for the day, listening for the sweet water after tapping a Maple tree

Joce TwoCrows, member of Sweet Grass Roots Collective and facilitator for the day, listening for the sweet water after tapping a maple tree

Afterwards, students shared their takeaways from the land-based learning experience in reflection assignments that were read and responded to by TwoCrows and LaFontaine. Many of the students expressed gratitude for the opportunity to learn first-hand Indigenous knowledge and traditions, and for the time and space to acknowledge the land on which they live and learn.

“As students, especially in this virtual learning era, we often forget to take a moment to absorb and acknowledge that land of which we learn and live off of,” wrote Megan Bailey and Zainab Khan, the two students who attended in person, in their reflection. “There is so much to be grateful for and so many forms of life at work on different scales, which was part of the beauty of this experience. Reconnecting with nature and removing ourselves from our electronic devices allowed us to recognize the centrality of land.

Jennifer LaFontaine, member of Sweet Grass Roots Collective and facilitator for the day, with buckets to collect sweet water (sap) from Maple trees

Jennifer LaFontaine, member of Sweet Grass Roots Collective and facilitator for the day, with buckets to collect sweet water (sap) from maple trees

“The opportunity to learn from Indigenous peoples who taught us first-hand traditions was an invaluable experience. This land-based educational experience allowed us as students to appreciate the life that surrounds us,” they added.

Students also acknowledged that although learning about Indigenous practices is crucial for building a connection with Indigenous communities, appreciating Indigenous knowledge is only one step when it comes to addressing systemic inequities.

“The land-based education challenged me to recognize these issues of access and think about how to centre and mobilize Indigenous teachings to challenge this colonial dominance,” wrote student Azeezah Jafry. “As settlers, we can appreciate how Indigenous beliefs and practices are reflected in our own to build a connection between our communities and further appreciate how they contribute to unique forms of knowledge. However, our responsibility as settlers does not stop with an appreciation for Indigenous communities and knowledge; it requires us to actively engage in their reclamation of social, economic and political freedoms.”

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