August 2, 2022
HUGS - Humboldt Urban Garden Santuary



Humboldt Urban Garden Sanctuary: A place of peace and reflection


April 6, 2018 is a tragic date forever etched in Canadian history. Over four years later, Canadians from coast to coast remember the shocking news of a junior hockey team bus crash. The accident claimed the lives of 16 people and injured 13 others. The Humboldt Broncos had been on their way to a semifinals game, hoping to bring a Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League Championship back to the small farm town located about 230 kilometres north of Regina.

The tight knit community of Humboldt was devastated by the loss; nationwide, Canadians rallied to support the victims and their families.

One project designed to support the community and commemorate the lives lost is the Humboldt Urban Garden Sanctuary, also known as HUGS. The garden, which officially opened at the Humboldt District Health Complex on June 22, 2022, was a collaboration between Landscape Alberta, Landscape Saskatchewan, Communities in Bloom, Green Cities Foundation, and Scotts Canada.

Joel Beatson is the executive director of both provincial associations. He said the Humboldt tragedy was felt by everyone, so although the healing garden is in Saskatchewan, Landscape Alberta offered administrative help to support the smaller Saskatchewan membership.

The Landscape Alberta board met within a week of the fatal accident. Three of the eight board members had played junior hockey, and like the Humboldt team, had memories of travelling across western Canada by bus to play in tournaments. “It was three grown men almost in tears at the meeting,” Beatson recalled. “That’s when we decided to reach out to the city and say, ‘hey, we’d like to do something.’ And unbeknownst to us, our friends at Communities in Bloom had also reached out to the city at the same time.”

The organizations combined their efforts to create something meaningful for the community. “The industry shows its love for what they do by giving it to others,” Beatson said, adding that the groups overcame numerous challenges caused by the pandemic.

Logistical challenges

Everything ground to a halt in the spring of 2020, just as the HUGS project was gaining momentum. Suddenly, no one knew if they’d be able to work at all that year, or how available volunteers might be during lockdowns.

Even assuming people could work outside safely, getting those people to Humboldt was another challenge. The town’s population is roughly 6,000 and there weren’t enough local landscapers to take on the whole project. It was at least an hour-and-a-half drive to bring helpers in from member companies in other communities.

The result was to write off 2020, but Beatson added “as we got into 2021, we said we have to get going on this.” That’s where project manager and past-president of Landscape Saskatchewan Leslie Cornell came in to help marshall resources and volunteers.

Even with Cornell’s experienced hand at the helm, the project faced another pandemic-induced issue plaguing the broader landscape trade: supply chain shortages.

“It’s pretty universal across Canada, but the pandemic has been a boom for landscaping,” Beatson said. “Trying to get materials was problematic.”

Beatson estimates the landscaping community donated over $200,000 worth of services and materials. “Most sponsors gave materials at cost, but it’s a big, big project to make,” Beatson said. “Without the donations, we would be nowhere. The industry, as always, comes to the table.”
Green Roof Volunteers celebrated the grand opening of HUGS on June 22, 2022.
Green Roof construction Palazzo Landscape Design.

Volunteer support

Beatson says the community support was amazing. “We had volunteers from the local community, including families impacted by the tragedy. Our friends at Farm Credit Canada (FCC) have a staff mandate of volunteer time every year so they came from multiple offices for planting."

Beatson said a group from FCC came for two days and planted over 300 trees and shrubs.

That was a major accomplishment, but to complete grading and other foundational elements, the project needed professional landscapers. “Laying pavers, for example, you need somebody who knows what they’re doing,” Beatson said. “We had great equipment partners too. But even that was a struggle because there were supply chain issues with equipment.” Anyone who had equipment to lend was now committed to their paying customers who were “banging down the door to get it.”

A place for connection

Despite the many challenges and delays, organizers and volunteers seemingly willed the HUGS dream into reality. “It definitely stemmed from a very caring starting point, of just seeing a community torn apart and really hurt by this,” Beatson said, explaining the group wanted to build a space not only for memoriam, but also something flexible enough that people could use it however they saw fit. By placing the healing garden on the hospital site, they knew it would become a space for caregivers, recovering patients, and for the community at large to find solace in nature.

The project has been deeply meaningful for everyone involved, Beatson said. “When we’ve had opportunities to deal with the families involved directly, the gratitude they show really drives home why you’re doing it because you’re building something that will last forever.”

Spring 2022 saw a push to plant more annuals and install a gazebo, benches, and landscape lighting. A commissioned art piece by local metal artist Murray Cook serves as a symbol of grace and transformation. The 14-foot sculpture features steel flowers and butterflies that cast coloured shadows that shift with the sun throughout the day.

Landscape designer Christyn Palazzo said her intent was to create connection with walking paths and meaningful sitting areas. The perimeter of the sunrise patio is planted with 13 shrubs and grasses to represent the survivors of the Bronco crash. Palazzo says the early morning view “reminds you that the sun will rise every day, and you will continue to move forward into your journey.” The sunset patio faces west, and features 16 plants to represent the lives taken in the tragedy. A pair of angel wing-shaped garden beds wrap around those sitting in the space.

Grand opening

At the grand opening ceremony, local dignitaries, volunteers, and families connected with the Broncos celebrated the thoughtful addition to their community.

“The project helped bring green industry professionals and community members together to help green their city and create a space of relaxation and healing in Humboldt,” Leslie Cornell said.

Four years in the making, HUGS is ready to be enjoyed. The serene new gardens show what is possible when dedicated volunteers come together to support a great cause.

Beatson expressed his gratitude to the many organizations and individuals who contributed, including: members of Landscape Saskatchewan and Landscape Alberta, the Green Cities Foundation, Communities and Bloom, Scotts Canada, the Humboldt and District Health Complex, the city of Humboldt, Olds College horticulture program, and a host of agencies, designers, suppliers, and volunteers.

“All our members just love, you know,” Beatson said, reflecting on the generosity of the landscaping community. “They love what they do, and they love to share it with people.”