Providing Care During the Pandemic: Dr. Debby Wilson Danard raises a Lodge on U of T grounds

By Perry King
September 28, 2023
mother earth lodge debby danard
Dr. Debby Wilson Danard helped raised the Mother Earth Learning Lodge in 2021. Submitted photos..

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Debby Wilson Danard, a graduate from the OISE class of 2016, raised Askaakamigokwe-wigamig (Ah-skaw-kom-ih-goh-kweh-whi-gah-mig, the Mother Earth Learning Lodge) on the grounds of New College at the University of Toronto.

The concern was the emotional well-being and physical safety of faculty and students present on the St. George campus, including those living in residence at New College. The Lodge ensured open air, physically distanced learning on the land and space for Indigenous knowledge, teachings and ceremony as an essential aspect of learning.

鈥淭o raise a lodge is to bring it to life. The lodge teaches us how to rebuild community and how that happens when we are in good relations with the land and practicing reciprocity with everything that is alive,鈥 says Danard.

To strengthen the physical connection to our original ways of life, Danard 鈥 in her role as New College Provost Postdoctoral Fellow from 2019 to 2021 and in partnership with the Principal of New College, Dr. Bonnie McElhinny 鈥 raised the lodge to support current and future Indigenous students during that time of great isolation.

This aligns with Danard鈥檚 commitment to 鈥渟trengthening life bundles鈥 as a Traditional Knowledge Practitioner and Indigenous Life Promotion Ambassador. In following her heart and tobacco offerings, she sought direction from her Elders: Jim Dumont (an internationally renowned Elder, speaker and traditional knowledge keeper, also known as the Gichi A:ya: 鈥渢he Elder of the Elders鈥 in the Eastern Doorway of the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge), Gertie Beaucage (a member of the Bear Clan raised at Nipissing First Nation and third degree member of the Three First Society) and Jeff Monague (an Ojibwe Language teacher, musician, traditional knowledge keeper and leader from the Beausoleil First Nation on Christian Island).

When it was time to gather the lodge poles, she was grateful for the many maple saplings offering their lives to build the lodge. It was then that she knew that the time had come to bring the lodge to life at U of T.

Building the lodge, with tri-campus support

Danard, along with her family 鈥 Cameron, Nelson, and Talyn Skye Bell 鈥 brought the maple saplings and supplies needed to the University of Toronto grounds. Once the supplies were on site, university colleagues involved in Indigenous research from across the three campuses at U of T came out to support Danard and build the lodge.  

Professor Jennifer Wemigwans, from the Adult Education & Community Development Program at OISE was honoured to help.

鈥淭his was the first time that I was able to help put up a lodge with my family,鈥 she says. 鈥淲e learned so much from Debby as she guided us on how to tie the saplings, all the while explaining the teachings of the lodge and how and why it is constructed in particular ways.鈥

鈥淚t was a very radical undertaking to build a traditional lodge right in the middle of the St. George campus and as a result has led to several lodges being erected at the St. George and Mississauga campuses. This is the first time since the University's founding in 1827 that a lodge was raised on the downtown campus!

鈥淗aving the lodge at St. George Campus creates space for Indigenous teachings. Being a part of the construction of this lodge supports the place-based work that I do with Indigenous Knowledge education and practice.鈥

鈥淚n addition, the Indigenous Education Network (IEN) at OISE has benefitted tremendously as the Elder-in-Residence from OISE hosts regular drop-in sessions and medicine teachings each term in the Lodge. The Lodge is a place for young people, students and for diverse Elders and Knowledge Keepers who want a land-based place to teach in.鈥 

鈥淒r. Danard鈥檚 vision was to have a place where the lodge could be shared and utilized by various Indigenous educators at U of T. To see the lodge being actively used by a variety of Indigenous educators is wonderful.鈥

Dr. Nicole Latulippe, a professor from the Department of Human Geography at U of T Scarborough, was honoured to be invited by Danard to support the building of the lodge. She recognizes how important it is to be a part of a community of allies and Indigenous educators affiliated with U of T. 鈥淎n important part of the process includes thinking together about how to support the lodge and its keepers in a good way,鈥 she says.

This comment resonates with Dr. Danard, who empathically states that, 鈥淭he lodge is not intended to decolonize or Indigenize the university space. Rather it is a space for learning and strengthening Indigenous values, beliefs and way of life.鈥

Inspiration and leadership

Mikinaak Migwans, an Assistant Professor of Art History at the Faculty of Arts and Science, emphasizesthe importance of honouring the Indigenous women who have prepared the way for Indigenous People to follow, including Danard. 鈥淲e are indebted to Dr. Debby Danard for building this teaching lodge,鈥 she says.

鈥淭he conversation about 鈥榤aking space鈥 for Indigeneity on campus can become very abstract. How can we address the needs of Indigenous people in their wholeness? And this includes spiritually, through cultural practices like smudging and offering tobacco to the fire.鈥

For Migwans, Danard鈥檚 vision was to make a traditional Anishinaabe lodge, 鈥渓ike the ones where she gained her own cultural knowledge,鈥 she says. 鈥淭his lodge embodies her care and her teachings.鈥

It was a privilege to be part of erecting the lodge, Migwans adds. 鈥淚t was between pandemic lockdowns, and something about being so isolated for so long and not being able to go home where people were suffering 鈥 it made the experience of building something together really poignant,鈥 she said.

鈥淒ebby was already at work with two helpers and a truckload of fresh-cut maple saplings when I got there.

Migwans has seen lodges built before but never in the city. 鈥淵ou have to anchor the saplings in the ground and bend two at a time into an archway, and if the ground is too soft or too hard you run into trouble. She had a way of measuring out the distance between posts, and tying the ends together with twine,鈥 she said.

鈥淚t took well into the evening to finish the frame because there were only a few of us, and the helpers were still learning how to work together. She just does the work, and you follow her example. I鈥檝e learned a lot from this experience, and from Debby鈥檚 way of teaching.鈥

Artist Maria Hupfield, the Canadian Research Chair in Transdisciplinary Indigenous Art from the Department of English and Drama at U of T Mississauga (UTM) lives up the street from New College. 

鈥淚 received a call from Debby to come help put up a lodge. It was a long time since I built one, but it all came back to me once we got started,鈥 she recalls.

Since then, Hupfield, along with her brother and postdoctoral fellow John Hupfield, have put up a Tiipii lodge on the grounds of the University of Toronto Mississauga campus. Tee Duke, the Director of Indigenous Student Services at UTM, facilitated the build to support place-based learning on that land.

Dr. Danard was thrilled to teach Indigenous orality inside the UTM Tiipii in Fall 2022. She shares, 鈥淚 never imagined that I would be part of time when we as Indigenous people would be connected to these spaces that bring us back to our original teachings and our ways of being in the world.鈥

鈥淭his is an exciting time!鈥 said Hupfield, 鈥淎 ripple effect is spreading across U of T because of Dr. Danard鈥檚 vision to bring our lodges to life on U of T grounds.鈥

Further acknowledgements

Dr. Danard acknowledges Jeff Monague, Park Manager on behalf of (Christian Island), Chimnissing who allowed the gathering of maple saplings for the lodge poles. Each of maple saplings were offered tobacco and are recognized for giving their life to provide the poles to construct a space for learning and connecting.

Monague, she says, also reminds us that The Mother Earth Learning Lodge is the ultimate Land Acknowledgement.

Respectfully, the student-centred Learning Lodge continues to be supported with financial and administration resources from Waakebiness Institute for Indigenous Health (WBIIH).

In the 2021/2022 academic year, Danard worked with Virtual Grounds: Platform and Trinity Square Video and Digital Justice Lab to complete an independent research project 鈥 resulting in the following video honouring Askaakamigokwe-wigamig and the relationship developed throughout the journey and to give voice to the Lodge:

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