First Nations set the table

September 4, 2003, vol. 28, no. 1
By Carol Thorbes

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SFU First Nations students Rick Ouellet (left) and Erma Robinson proudly display an illustration of the logo for the Cedar Table series. The logo was designed by First Nations graphic artist Mary Longman.

The sound of beating drums, the scent of cedar and snippets of intense conversation about socio-politics emanate from a common area where First Nations students gather at Simon Fraser University's Burnaby campus.

All this activity no doubt, arouses the curiosity of anyone unfamiliar with its origins. A unique event on Sept. 17 will enable all of SFU's campus community to find out about any First Nations topic that interests them.

Setting the Cedar Table, hosted by the First Nations Student Association (FNSA), First Nations Student Centre (FNSC) and a group of SFU researchers will set the table for frank and open discussion.

The daylong freestyle forum is the first of three events over the next nine months, collectively known as the Cedar Table Series: Progressions in First Nations Education.

The logo for the series, designed by First Nations artist Mary Longman, aptly portrays two stylized faces in dialogue, encircled by a cedar rope - a symbol of strength and adaptability in native culture.

“There are no stupid questions if what you are looking for is an honest answer,” says Erma Robinson, referring to the openness of the Setting the Cedar Table event.

She is acquiring credentials to teach First Nations studies at public schools.

“I hope to discuss the need for a degree program that allows a SFU student to major in First Nations studies,” says Robinson, who has her B.A. but has to collect extra credits to compensate for the lack of a major in First Nations studies.

FNSA member Rick Ouellet, a Metis SFU archaeology master's student, is co-organizing the series.

It allows participants to decide what is discussed at the forum and what topics warrant further treatment by expert speakers.

“I'm interested in the opportunity the first event provides for natives and non-natives to dispel stereotyping, misunderstandings and ignorance of First Nations history,” says Ouellet, one of 75 aboriginal students at the Burnaby campus.

Setting the Cedar Table is modelled on a concept that Paige Raibmon, an assistant professor of First Nations history at SFU, first saw in action in India. Raibmon, founded the research group co-organizing the Cedar Table series.

The group, specializing in First Nations studies, is as passionate about trying to bridge rifts between natives and non-natives as it is about bridging First Nations research across disciplines.

“Historians don't always have their heads stuck in the past,” quips Raibmon. “My students are often surprised to discover that knowledge of First Nations history helps them understand why contemporary issues, such as land claims, are contentious. They hunger for more information but don't know where to get it,” something that the Cedar Table series hopes to address.

The VP-academic's office and the registrar's office have contributed $10,000 toward financing the Cedar Table series' first two events. Matching money from the FNSA will finance the last event and a feast. Four to six speakers will make presentations on topics coming out of the Sept. 17 event over the fall and winter.

The last event, in May, a full-scale conference coordinated by Robinson, will deal with First Nations' educational issues. Setting the Cedar Table will take place in rooms behind Quadbooks in the Maggie Benston centre. See the website at

The kick off event will coincide with the FNSA's second annual fall feast, which will feature a variety of native dishes, including a salmon barbecue, and entertainment. It will take place on the plaza between the library and the Maggie Benston centre at noon on Sept. 17.

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