People and programs 07/07/2016

What happens when you move across the world and you need to regrow roots in a new community? New Canadians often face language barriers, social isolation, and the challenge of being disconnected from the larger community. Two Good Food Organizations – Halifax’s Ecology Action Centre and Toronto's Greenest City – have discovered that community gardening can be a significant stepping stone to social connection for newcomers. In the garden, where vegetables become the common language, a sense of belonging flourishes.

Photovoice in the Garden project

“I enjoy going to my garden. It reminds me of my childhood back in Bhutan and my family. My parents and siblings are not with me in Canada.”

— Chhali Maya Bhandari, Photovoice participant

Halifax's Ecology Action Centre has been working since 1971 to be a strong voice for the environment and to build a healthier, more sustainable world. Seeing that new Canadians in Halifax were struggling to access affordable, healthy food and establish social connections, they decided to develop a newcomer garden project in partnership with Immigrant Services Association (ISANS). Through their 2015 Photovoice in the Garden project, gardeners let us into their world, allowing us to see through their images and words how gardening grows connection and community. 12 community gardeners from three community gardens in Halifax’s West End took part in the project. Newcomers from Bhutan, Nepal, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Uganda, and Afghanistan each received a camera and went out to share their life and gardens from their point of view.

For program participant Monica Musasa, her garden is rich with the edible cultural heritage she wants to pass on to her daughter. “The fact that my daughter will grow up here having something she used to eat in Africa is important to me," she explained. “I cannot stop eating what I grew up eating.” Fellow participant Dhan Maya Chhetri, who is from Nepal but whose family is spread all over the world, found a season of gardening helped relieve her constant worry about her family’s welfare. “After I got this garden, I started to plant those crops that I know from my childhood. This helped me not to worry. I go to the garden, water the plants, and talk with my friends from the community. It is very relaxing.”

Gardener Kharga Bahadur Rai adds: “The vegetable garden is not only the place for me, but it’s one of the best places where I can meet different people from other communities. I can share my knowledge and experience with other people and I can remain physically active and stress free!”

The Milky Way Garden

The Milky Way Garden in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood began to grow after an ESL teacher asked her adult students a typical vocabulary question: what vegetables did they like best? After a moment of silence, one student explained that they liked vegetables, but that they were rather expensive. The students and community members got together and started a container garden behind the library where they took their ESL lessons and, with the help of Greenest City constructed 12 sturdy raised beds with fresh, healthy soil. Since the establishment of the garden in 2007, the mostly Tibetan students have raised and shared hundreds of pounds of fresh, organic vegetables. At the Milky Way Garden, gardening makes fast friends, says Greenest City’s Program Coordinator Monique Kelemen. “We see this often in the garden, at potlucks, and on the street. While the participants are learning how to navigate their new homeland, they are able to communicate through growing, eating, and sharing food.”

A common denominator across the Parkdale and Halifax gardens is that participants arrived to Canada with strong agricultural backgrounds. Here in their new home, they miss the camaraderie of working on the land with their community. Yet, in their home away from home, they’re creating a new community, with people from very different cultures who share common experiences. And in the process, they’re gaining confidence to take on leadership roles, and the confidence to participate in the wider community.

See all the Photovoice in the Garden stories on Ecology Action Centre’s Facebook page.

Greenest City is partnering with The Parkdale Land Trust to become a community-owned urban agricultural space. You can support the Milky Way Garden here.