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Picnic Table on the River by Matthew Hickey

A place for eating
A place for gathering
A place for learning
A place for sharing

The picnic table has provided a place for all of these things to most anyone who grew up in what we now call Canada. We found ourselves gathered around and on these wooden constructions throughout the day and often into the night.  We ate breakfast there, shared corn on the cob, and roasted marshmallows, facing in, facing out, and sometimes it was even a dance platform. The table was a place for all things at all times of day. 

These constructions are made of simple 2×4’s and placed outside in nature, and usually beside water; a lake, a pond, or a river. We have been drawn to water since time immemorial with our villages, towns, and now cities benefiting from its life-giving properties. Tkaronto (Toronto) is no different, being established in a place that had access to river routes and life-rich marshes, deltas, and shorelines. The marshes have long been filled in and the rivers have been buried, but their stories live on.

Deep beneath the highways and byways of our city lives a system that once provided for this place’s inhabitants. A system that was connected to an ever-changing landscape full of our relations who lived intrinsically linked to the cycles of the day, seasons, and years. The rain falling from the sky feeding the earth, visibly overflowing her veins with water, carving their way through nature, creating a path, to the ever-changing lakefront.

These sources of energy, life, habitat, food, and drink, cleanse the soil. They provide a place to gather, live, learn, and play. The rivers and creeks that once sustained the landscape have lost control over their own path, being contained within sewer pipes and steel-edged break walls.  With this loss they have also, over time, lost their capacity to support all life. 

Starting as early as 1898 overfishing and pollution (in the form of dumps) contributed to a decrease in the Atlantic salmon population, and by 1898 the salmon had officially vanished from the lake—still gone to this day. 

More recently the American Eel, a species that has been around for 125 million years, has significantly diminished in population within the lake over the past 40 years. The tributaries in and around Tkaronto were their place of habitation with migration over 1500km to the Atlantic Ocean to lay their eggs, a migration that has dwindled from numbers in the millions to just around 40,000 along the St. Lawrence River, a number notably affected by the hydro-electric turbines that block the eel’s route.

These are two examples of the relations that we have displaced through the arrogant manipulation of our creeks, rivers, lakes, and deltas. Places that were once for all living beings, that have been reduced to serving the waste systems of a metropolitan city.  Reminding ourselves of the importance of place and of maintaining the precious systems not just for humans, but also our relations is marked by the connection between the picnic table and the rivers it sits beside. 

These were places that we ate.
These were places that we gathered.
These were places that we learned.
These were places that we shared.


About the Author

Matthew is Mohawk from the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve, receiving his Masters of Architecture from the University of Calgary and his Bachelor of Design from the Ontario College of Art and Design. His Mohawk background continues to have a significant impact on his work. Practicing architecture at Two Row Architect for 16 years, he currently oversees design and development for the firm. Their core focus is on Indigenous design and architecture, designing buildings, landscapes, and installations, on and off-reserve located all over Turtle Island. Matthew’s focus for sustainability is on regenerative and restorative design – encompassing ecological, cultural, and economic principles.

His work pushes the concepts of Universal Inclusivity through integrated landscapes, food equity, the importance of water, and place-keeping for all species, including humans. His research includes Indigenous history in architecture of Northern & Middle America and the realignment of western ideology towards historic sustainable technologies for the contemporary North American climate. Matthew is an Assistant Professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design University. He believes that giving back and encouraging younger generations is the key to moving our way of thinking about design and architecture forward. Further, he has lectured all across Canada, including most recently at the Healthy Cities Conference in London, UK. Art being in his blood, he is proud to be a Director on the Board of Toronto Artscape Inc. and a member of the Waterfront Design Review Panel.