Breaking new ground; building a diverse campus


What is now a very large hole in the ground will soon be what U of S President Ilene Busch-Vishniac calls “a reflection of our collective commitment to build an inclusive gathering space where all people—Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal—can come together and learn from one another and achieve their educational goals.”

By Andréa Ledding

Construction of the Gordon Oakes-Red Bear Student Centre began just days after the ground-breaking ceremony on June 21, National Aboriginal Day. Busch-Vishniac stated the centre builds upon an earned reputation as a leader in Aboriginal education over the past 40 years and is “a critical step towards meeting our commitment to be the pre-eminent Canadian university in all aspects of Aboriginal education. Through consultation with Elders and Aboriginal faculty, staff and students, we are working to achieve this commitment.”

Many members of the campus community were involved in all the ceremonies associated with the ground-breaking, which included a tobacco ceremony and pipe ceremony. President Busch-Vishniac was especially honoured to participate in a sweat and to play a role in the horse dance ceremony that took place at Wanuskewin Heritage Park after the sod turning ceremony.

University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union (USSU) President Max FineDay—the second consecutive Aboriginal person to be elected USSU president—affirmed Busch-Vishniac’s commitment. “The USSU has one of the largest numbers of First Nations and Métis members of all student unions in Canada, and we take pride

in that. Now that the ground has been broken, we move to the next stage. I look forward to the university engaging with Aboriginal students about what they envision the new centre offering for students and community.”

Located at the end of the Wiggins Road entrance to campus, between the Arts and Murray buildings, the centre’s visibility will be welcome change and stark contrast to the current lack of awareness of communal space.

Jared Brown, past-USSU president, described an oft-repeated scenario in which he would tell fellow senior-level classmates he would be at the Aboriginal Students’ Centre, only to receive a blank look or query. He would then have to explain, “Do you know where the bookstore is? ‘Well, yes.’ Do you know where the Tim Hortons is? ‘Well, yeah.’ Do you know where the bathrooms are? ‘Yeah.’ Well it’s right between the Tim Hortons and the bathroom. ‘Oh, that room.’”

The couple thousand Aboriginal students who self-identify on campus are dispersed throughout various colleges and departments, making it harder to have an exchange of ideas or provide targeted support and a means to improve the student experience.

David Hannah, associate vice-president of student affairs, said, “The Gordon Oakes-Red Bear Student Centre will provide not only a new, high-profile space for Aboriginal students from across campus to gather, but also a place for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students to interact and learn from each other.”

Winona Wheeler, head of the Department of Native Studies, emphasized the importance of cultural support. “The [student centre] is our home away from home. It’s a safe place where we can be ourselves, and find comfort and support among each other. The space and programming help keep us balanced as we work and study in an environment so different from where we come from.”

Breaking new ground; building a diverse campus

The new centre will combine office space with a cultural gathering space that can be used to facilitate events of significance for the entire campus. There will be a place of hospitality for all students looking for a welcoming place to meet, access resources or learn more about the traditions of the first-keepers of the land we all now share. Practical resources such as mentoring and access to community Elders will also be available for all.

“This is why the student centre is key to providing a safe and respectful meeting place to begin a conversation—to dialogue, engage, and relate as equals with valuable and valid contributions,” said Brown.

Additionally, it will send a message to past, current and prospective students that the U of S acknowledges and affirms the important role of Aboriginal people at the university, in our communities and in the workforce.

“We believe the centre will also serve as a stimulus for improved programs and services for Aboriginal students, as well as for improved communication between and collaboration among units that provide these programs and services,” noted Hannah, acknowledging the current difficulties of adequately meeting the needs of such a disparate population.

Relationship and diversity make the U of S experience richer for everyone, said Busch- Vishniac. “Diverse presence and perspectives enrich the research, teaching and learning experience for us all. Moving forward we must continue to be highly consultative and collaborative with Elders and Aboriginal faculty, staff and students as well as other First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities.

“I believe we have a moral imperative to partner with these groups to ensure that their educational goals are attainable,” Busch-Vishniac said in her address at the ground-breaking. “But in order to achieve the highest level of success in their academic pursuits, these learners must be able to recognize themselves and their cultures in the curriculum they study and in the places they study.”

In June, the U of S was the first Canadian university to host the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association Conference. The strong Aboriginal presence on campus was widely admired by visiting students and scholars from around the world—a tangible indication of progress on campus.

The fact Aboriginal people are the youngest and fastest growing population in Saskatchewan adds some urgency to Busch-Vishniac’s vision.

“The overarching goal at our university, quite simply, is to ensure that we are doing everything in our power to provide high quality education for all people,” she added.

Brown concurred with the importance of quality, and equality. “If we’re going to make inroads with other people in the country, so we can create a basis of some kind of a firm understanding, I think we need to start creating a consciousness that believes in fundamental values such as the education of Aboriginal people, such as equity, equality for our people, and to start looking at how we can address these major issues in our country. I think that begins with understanding—with creating that conversation with people on campus—because ultimately those people on campus are going to be going on to professional positions.”

While progress is being made, Brown pointed out challenges still exist. There is a common misconception in Canada that all Aboriginal students receive free post-secondary education as a guaranteed treaty right. But the reality is that Aboriginal students in primary and secondary schools are funded 30-to-50 per cent less than the average Canadian student, depending on the province and method of calculation. And federal funding to bands for post-secondary education has been capped for decades, despite significant population growth, tuition increases and inflation.

FineDay echoed his predecessor, Brown, in enthusiasm, hope and caution.

“There is still much work to be done to make Aboriginal peoples feel like this is their campus, their community too. The placement of the Gordon Oakes-Red Bear Student Centre in the heart of campus is a great first step in showing First Nations and Métis students that they are valued and recognized at the university.”

That recognition and front-and-centre presence, along with practical resources and access to mentoring services and community Elders, will help maintain and increase success for the entire student body—and the wider community.
“The new Centre will provide both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples a place to learn, celebrate achievement and build community with students from all across campus,” noted FineDay.

Building community, celebrating achievements and learning are all crucial to academic and institutional success, both during a student’s time on campus and afterwards. As students become young professionals, their experiences at the U of S and in their communities will allow them to contribute to a better, more inclusive society. It begins with bricks-and- mortar, but the visions for this physical space and the legacy it represents are still being imagined.

Photo gallery, interactive map, live webcam of construction site

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Who is Gordon Oakes?

The building’s namesake was born in 1932 in the Cypress Hills of southwestern Saskatchewan, on what is now the Nekaneet First Nation. He died in February 2002. He is described as having been a spiritual man throughout his life who guided many within his community and across the province. Oakes held a strong belief in education while honouring one’s culture and traditions.

His daughter, Irene, who works on campus as an advisor with the College of Education, described her father’s vision of balancing education and culture and tradition as a team of two horses— one representing Aboriginal people and one representing non- Aboriginal people—pulling forward together.

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Architecture and construction

Gordon OakesGordon Oakes

Architectural renderings of the Gordon Oakes-Red Bear Student Centre

Noted architect Douglas Cardinal (DLet’12), of Blackfoot and Métis heritage, was hired to draft and design a building in 2006, eight years after the concept was given life through an initial $1-million donation for Aboriginal student space from NOVA Chemicals.

Cardinal—who has designed the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que. and the building for Regina’s First Nations University of Canada— has produced a distinctive design incorporating the university’s signature stonework with unique cultural aspects.

The exterior will employ fieldstone and Tyndall stone that make up other campus buildings, but like many of Cardinal’s designs, will have a unique shape. Mirroring the medicine wheel, there will be four quadrants to represent the four directions, incorporating the traditions of a south-facing entrance and clockwise passageways. The curving structure, similar to a large lodge, deliberately incorporates the Aboriginal construct of the circle as a symbolic basis for healing, knowledge and equality. The centre of the building will house the ceremonial space, while office space, lounges and resource rooms will radiate outwards from that centre.

Tunnels will connect the centre to the existing tunnel between the Arts and Murray buildings and go under Campus Drive to the Health Sciences Building.

Seventeen elm trees were removed to make room for the centre, and the wood from the trees will be incorporated into the design of the building. It is university policy that whenever plant growth is disturbed due to age, health, storm damage or development, tree replacement occurs.

Cost of the centre is $17 million. Approximately $5 million has been provided by donors and sponsors with the rest coming from the university’s capital budget, which is separate from operating funds.

The centre is expected to open in early 2015.

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The significance of ceremony

Tradition and ceremony are integral parts of Aboriginal history and culture. The practice of various ceremonies may vary nation to nation and region to region, but they remain a vital part of all First Nations, Métis and Inuit cultures.

Pipe ceremony

The pipe is very sacred to First Nations people. In the past, it was used to open negotiations between different nations as a way for good talk to take place. This ceremony was also regarded as the way by which participants would be truthful, respectful and abide by the decisions and agreements that were made during the meeting time. As one of the four sacred medicines, tobacco that has been blessed through prayer is normally used for the ceremony.

Honour song

Honour songs, as their name implies, are requested to honour particular individuals. Drums, which are often played, are sacred objects and represent the heartbeat of the nation, the pulse of the universe.

Use of tobacco

At the ground-breaking, tobacco was placed in the hole made by the shovels. Tobacco is placed onto Mother Earth as acknowledgement for providing all the things that help sustain our physical beings. Offering sacred tobacco is a way of giving thanks.

Sweat lodge

Used mainly for communal prayer purposes, the sweat lodge may also provide necessary ceremonial settings for spiritual healing and purification. Most fasts require a sweat ceremony before and after the event.

Horse dance

Many Aboriginal communities value the horse as being both hard-working and gentle. The horse dance this summer was a ceremonial way of asking for good futures for the students, staff and administration at the university and the surrounding communities, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike.

Read more about Aboriginal symbols at the U of S

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