Let Junaid Shahzad Khan Help You Work On Your Relationship With The Earth

As part of a Serie Highlighting the work of young people to address the climate crisis, writer Patricia Lane interviews Junaid Shahzad Khan, who uses her background in ecology to empower communities to weave their own ancient stories with Western science to build a better future.

Junaid Shahzad Khan

At Pollinator Partnership Canada, Junaid Shahzad Khan expands the creation of pollinator habitats. Like the recent environmentalist in residence at the Toronto Public Library, he hosted webinars showing how ancient wisdom can inform the shift to new governance models in urban food production.

Tell us about your projects.

At Pollinator Partnership Canada, my job is to increase pollinator habitat. While I myself have helped plant over 6,000 native plants in the Toronto area to grow, we also support others to do it themselves. The concept is really taking off and there are projects in Etobicoke, Scarborough and other cities nearby. I customize tables at markets delivering native plant samples and host webinars with schools on topics such as the life cycle of bees and native plant identification. We support individuals and groups to identify, plant and grow native plants. We have recently started engaging large local land managers, like Ontario Power Generation, to see this as part of their mandates.

Months of planning led to this incredible moment when Junaid Shahzad Khan was watering the plants with hand-collected river water using a pesticide sprayer and the plants were greeted into their new homes with a stain from firefighter Justin Shilling. Photo by Ryan Godfrey

An essential part of my job is to make sure that the plants used are native to the area. This means learning about and partnering with local indigenous peoples, as well as respecting colonist farmers’ knowledge of the land.

As a Fall 2021 environmentalist in residence at the Toronto Public Library, I have focused on facilitating knowledge sharing between these communities. On November 4, for example, we told the story of how indigenous peoples helped improve ecology on the Humber River as we replanted and renovated a forest that has long been a sacred gathering place.

What inspired you to do this job?

I spent my childhood in Karachi, Pakistan, one of the busiest and most violent places in the world. I was never outside because it was not safe. By some chance, our rabbit-eared satellite television caught National Geographic broadcasts for two hours a day. Photography fascinated me, but I learned that “nature” and wild spaces were in another place and not where I was.

Junaid Shahzad Khan has some advice for you: bring your body to the ground and your hands to the ground. Help something to grow or feast your eyes on something that is natural and thriving. #Nature #Weather

When we arrived in Canada, I was moved to study the natural world, but I still felt like it belonged to rich white-skinned people and not me. Then one day, I was with Jacqueline Dwyer, founder of the Toronto Black Farmers Collective. She was teaching me how to harvest sunchokes to eat. I’d seen them as a native species before, but otherwise not very interesting. As I held this strange, but somehow familiar, striped tuber, something changed in me. I realized that although the European settlers viewed the land as an empty desert with no relation to human lives, in fact these tubers and the land on which they grow have been cultivated and cultivated for thousands of years by indigenous peoples. Jacqueline could see it as food because as an urban farmer. It looked like a potato to her and was therefore familiar. Suddenly, I could see myself as part of the natural world. Other people have a relationship with this land and I could too.

After a long day of packing a truck out of town, these smiles are one of relief, anticipation, and joy. From left to right: Junaid Shahzad Khan, his mother and his partner Clara. Photo by Andrés Jiménez Monge

Now I see that my job is to weave together people’s understanding of what it is to be a part of nature so that we can heal the earth and, in the process, heal ourselves and others.

I myself have found some of that healing. In college, I was very depressed and even tried to kill myself. I felt all the pressure that many young people feel knowing that we have to succeed to please our parents and make sure that we deserve the sacrifices they made to come here. But seeing myself as part of nature has been transformative for my sanity. It is also helping my relationship with my mom. When I point to and name a bird that we see in a park, she can tell me about a bird of a similar species in Pakistan that she remembers from the best time of her life, when she was a child living in a smaller center. , closer to the ground. That’s a very different conversation than the ones that used to dominate our time together about whether I was doing enough to be successful.

What advice do you have for other young people??

Bring your body to the ground and your hands to the ground. Help something to grow or feast your eyes on something that is natural and thriving. Learn all the names of your local birds and trees and the role they play in the ecosystem and in the lives of indigenous peoples and farmers on older settler lands. Our generation has a lot on our shoulders. The relationships we can develop with the natural world will sustain us.

What would you like to say to older readers?

Get down to earth with the young people in your life. The things you talk about there will be different. There will be more opportunities to share your wisdom there than you can imagine.


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