This is part of our Healthy Communities Initiative series, showcasing how the $31 million investment from the Government of Canada is supporting communities as they create and adapt public spaces to respond to the new realities of COVID-19. 

If you take a stroll along Sudbury’s Junction Creek waterway, you might stumble across a ‘Creativity Box’: a wooden container holding a seasonal nature guide and art supplies.

The Creativity Boxes are a part of the ‘Tiny Traces Along Junction Creek’ project. Launched in 2021 against the backdrop of school closures and wide-spread lockdowns, Tiny Traces brings outdoor learning and nature-based play to both adults and children, creating a safe space to connect during COVID-19. 

Recently, Sharon Speir — co-chair of Early Childhood Creative Collaborations (ECCCo), the organization leading ‘Tiny Traces’— was walking through Sudbury’s Twin Forks neighbourhood. Opening up the local Creativity Box, she saw someone had left two strips of paper in it: one saying ‘Happy Earth Day’, and the other saying ‘You are loved’.

“People [are] communicating connection, relationship, wellbeing,” Speir says.

That’s exactly what ECCCo hoped would happen when its team launched Tiny Traces alongside environmental artist Sophie Anne Edwards and the Junction Creek Stewardship Committee.

Tiny Traces gives children and adults the opportunity to connect with the Junction Creek watershed itself, which runs through the heart of downtown Sudbury. Since 1999, Junction Creek Stewardship Committee has been restoring the creek, making it a place of conservation, public education and community connection. 

As well as the Creativity Boxes, Tiny Traces hosts in-person gatherings, and poses ‘research questions’ to the community, asking things like: can you hear the water talking? What stories is the water telling? How do the sounds of the creek change along its path? 

Edwards explains that the project was designed directly in response to the pandemic. “We know that connection to the environment is really important for mental health,” she says. “When people are connected to an ecosystem, there’s not only a sense of health and wellbeing for ourselves, but there is a sense of stewardship for the land — and our ecosystems need stewardship.”

Funding to Bolster Community Spirit

The project was launched with $58,788 in funding from the Healthy Communities Initiative (HCI), which supports the creation of safe and vibrant public spaces during COVID-19. The team came across the funding opportunity through the North Bay and Area Community Foundation.

“We couldn’t do it without the HCI,” Edwards says. “It’s enabled us to build on community relationships and build a relationship with Junction Creek Stewardship Committee, which has been really wonderful.” 

On a personal note, Edwards adds that, often, artists don’t get paid for their work. “The HCI funding enables me to actually do this work,” she says. “Otherwise I’m juggling multiple gigs, I pop in and out of other things. It’s allowed us to have me as part of the project.”

With funding in place, Tiny Traces has brought a positive impact to local children, families and adults who may have been feeling isolated during COVID-19.

Sharing an example, Edwards says that, during one facilitation in the winter, a child made a hole in the snow and said, ‘I’m a fish in the creek’, while kids arranged branches to look like fire. “That led us to think, how do we bring that sense of joy and celebration that we have around a campfire to the creek?” she says. 

In another example, Edwards says that an Indigenous community member has drawn two pictures: one of a beaver, and another of birch, sharing that the Ojibwe word for ‘beaver’ is ‘amik’, and ‘birch’ is ‘wiigwaas’.

Connecting to the Land

Junction Creek is a wildlife corridor, allowing plants and animals to thrive. Once or twice a season, Tiny Traces creates a new guide which it shares through its Creativity Boxes, direct mail, and online. The guides explain what’s happening in the local ecosystem, and encourage the community to draw inspiration from their surroundings to create art — the outcome of which is often shared online.

“It’s intergenerational,” Edwards says. “We’re getting drawings from adults and children.” 

Since its launch, Tiny Traces has been steadily growing a network of educators and participants throughout Sudbury. It has worked with several schools, including a kindergarten class from the Princess Anne Public School. Here, local teacher Kim Wilson used the Creativity Boxes to encourage her students to draw the sound a waterfall makes.

One student, Orla, created artwork with lots of straight lines. She explained to Tiny Traces: “when I went up a little bit, to one of the parts [of the waterfall], it sounded nice and calm. It was very nice. It sounded nice and calm because [the water] was nice and slow.”

“The educator loved that the child made that emotional connection,” Speir says. “We really love highlighting children’s thinking, because they’re telling us directly how they feel and how they think — and they have an affinity for the environment.” 

Slow and Steady

Looking ahead, Edwards says that Tiny Traces is “very slow and gentle work. It’s not the kind of thing where you say, ‘thousands of people developed 45 percent better mental health’. It’s an invitation to think about longer term change in terms of advocacy for the environment and sharing with each other.” 

However, additional funding is needed for Tiny Traces to continue its work in the years to come. For Edwards, the most important thing is the relationship she has built with ECCCo and Junction Creek Stewardship Committee.

“I am less interested in these one-off projects where you do a quick workshop, and then you walk away,” she says. “I think we really need to be thinking about long term relationships with each other and with ecosystems.”

Speir agrees: “I think it’s hard to articulate or quantify relationships, but working with Junction Creek Stewardship Committee, the ethos and the longer term goals are very parallel. Whatever comes later, we have that relationship to build on.”