Indigenous students will have a home away from home and the university community will have a ceremonial space in which to celebrate Indigenous knowledge and culture when a new First Peoples’ Gathering House opens on Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) Burnaby campus in 2023.
The project, funded jointly by the provincial government ($6.4 million) and SFU ($8.6 million) for a total projected cost of $15 million, represents a step toward lasting reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in British Columbia and Canada.
“Providing this kind of beautiful, culturally relevant space for Indigenous learners to come together, to celebrate, to practise cultural traditions, to learn and to make lasting friendships and connections is something I could have only dreamed of when I attended SFU,” said Melanie Mark, Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Training. “This is what reconciliation is all about. We are responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action by building safe spaces so that Indigenous students, faculty and staff know that they can achieve their goals and aspirations at SFU and in every public post-secondary institution across B.C.”
When completed, the SFU First Peoples' Gathering House will be a 1,346 square-metre (14,485 square-foot) gathering house with a large ceremonial hall for hosting special events of up to 300 attendees. Other features of the new space will include a dressing room, an Elders’ room, a classroom, a wellness room and a multi-generational Indigenous peoples' lounge, as well as a food service kitchen.
“The First Peoples’ Gathering House will provide a culturally appropriate space for Indigenous gatherings and for enabling the university community to gain a deeper appreciation of Indigenous knowledge and culture,” said Andrew Petter, president, SFU. “We are very thankful for the provincial government’s support of this important facility, which will assist the university to advance the process of reconciliation through education and engagement.”
With the ceremonial hall as its focal point, the new gathering house will expand SFU’s capacity to support Indigenous students in a culturally relevant space designed in the Coast Salish traditions and iconic typologies. SFU’s Burnaby campus is on the traditional territories of the xʷmәθkʷәy̓әm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish), sәl̓ilw̓әtaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) and kʷikʷәƛ̓әm (Kwikwetlem).
“Building a First Peoples' Gathering Place was a discussion that began in the 1990s,” said Eldon Yellowhorn, SFU’s first Indigenous faculty member and a member of SFU’s Aboriginal Reconciliation Council, who helped champion this project. “Realizing it is like getting the wish that was always close yet just out of reach. Now that we have grasped hold of it we can pay attention to those other wishes that also seemed unreachable.”
The project aligns with the Ministry of Advanced Education, Skills and Training’s goal of lasting reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in British Columbia through post-secondary education skills and training. The project also aligns with SFU’s Aboriginal Strategic Plan to develop infrastructure and facilities to support Indigenous learners.
Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is a shared priority between government and the BC Green Party caucus, and is part of the Confidence and Supply Agreement.
Ron Johnston, director, Office for Aboriginal Peoples at SFU, who helped champion the project –
“I was a student at SFU in the mid-'90s, and we never really had a space that was the heart and soul of the Indigenous community. A longhouse is at the heart of every Indigenous community and now we will have that here at SFU. The way I view it is that the First Peoples' Gathering House will help to create a sacred learning space here.”
Katrina Chen, MLA for Burnaby-Lougheed –
“I’m so pleased that Indigenous students at the Burnaby Mountain campus will have a beautiful new space to celebrate their culture and connect with their community. As a former SFU student, I know the First Peoples' Gathering House will advance reconciliation and enrich the learning experiences of all staff and students on campus.”
- Funding from SFU is coming from several university sources, including faculties and SFU’s Aboriginal Strategic Initiative, which has provided $9 million in one-time funding for investment in projects and initiatives to support reconciliation at SFU campuses and ensure the university has the capacity to recruit, educate and support Indigenous students to be successful in their chosen educational paths, lives and future careers.
- SFU’s 2017 Walk this Path with Us report details 34 Calls to Action to create, support and sustain a changed and improved environment for Indigenous students, staff and faculty. A First Peoples’ Gathering House responds to the call to create safe and culturally appropriate spaces.
- Statistics Canada estimates that only 7% of Indigenous people in British Columbia aged 25 to 64 hold university degrees, compared to 25% of non-Indigenous people.
- In the 2019-20 fiscal year, there were 781 Indigenous students (559 undergraduate and 222 graduate) at SFU.
- SFU is committed to equalling or increasing its Indigenous enrolment.