‘A home away from home’: SFU welcomes announcement of First Peoples’ Gathering House
Plans for a ceremonial space for the SFU community to celebrate Indigenous knowledge and culture are underway. SFU’s First Peoples’ Gathering House will open on SFU’s Burnaby campus in 2023.
"I'm very excited this project is moving forward; the Indigenous People's Gathering House will be ‘our home away from home’ and the heart and soul of Indigeneity at SFU,” says Ron Johnston, director of SFU’s Office for Aboriginal Peoples. Johnston is an SFU alumnus, and a member of SFU’s Aboriginal Reconciliation Council (SFU-ARC).
“Longhouses are sacred places in our communities where teaching, learning, ceremony, and protocols are upheld and practiced and are at the centre of our Indigenous cultures, now we will have such a place at SFU," says Johnston.
SFU’s 2017 Walk this Path with Us report outlines 34 calls to action to create and support an improved environment for SFU’s Indigenous community members.
Designed in the Coast Salish traditions and iconic typologies, the Gathering House represents a step toward lasting reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and SFU’s continued reconciliation efforts.
Marcia Guno, director of the Indigenous Student Centre, says that the Gathering House will play a significant role in the university community. “As an important campus space that recognizes and honours Indigenous peoples, it will enrich our campus, it will enrich our community, and it will enrich awareness about Indigenous peoples and history in Canada."
Eldon Yellowhorn, who is also an SFU alumnus and SFU-ARC member, is a founding chair of the Department of First Nations studies, now titled Indigenous Studies, and has helped champion the project. “Building a First Peoples’ Gathering Place was a discussion that began in the 1990s,” he says.
“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.”
SFU’s enrolment figures for 2019-20 show a total of 781 Indigenous students, including 559 undergraduates and 222 graduate students.
“I think this space is essential for Indigenous students and their experience at SFU,” says Matthew Provost, SFSS VP of Student Services from Piikani Nation. “Indigenous students on campus need a space that provides that safety and the ability to be surrounded by community. We need to start recognizing that Indigenous student spaces hold a lot of value.
“Twenty years ago, we would have never seen spaces like this allocated for Indigenous people. I am thankful for those who have advocated before me to ensure the university has taken those first steps, in order to understand and acknowledge the significance and utmost need for Indigenous space. I am glad to be here to witness that.”
The First Peoples’ Gathering House will include a large ceremonial hall for hosting special events of up to 300 attendees. The new space will also 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.
“It is particularly gratifying to see various groups coming together in collaboration to provide the funding for the Gathering House; this was another important theme in the ARC report, and is representative of the need for all to be active participants in reconciliation,” says education professor Kris Magnusson, a member of SFU-ARC.
“May the Gathering House be an enduring symbol of our collective commitment to continue the work of reconciliation throughout all of the intellectual, social and cultural spaces at Simon Fraser University. And to all who have worked so hard to make this happen, my heartfelt gratitude.”
Replacing the Strand Hall Annex, the First Peoples’ Gathering House, funded jointly by the provincial government and SFU, will cost a projected $15 million.
“Providing this kind of beautiful, culturally relevant space for Indigenous learners to come together, to celebrate, to practice cultural traditions, to learn, and to make new friends is something I could have only dreamed about when I attended SFU,” says Melanie Mark, Minister of Advanced Education, Skills & Training. “This is what reconciliation is about; it’s a strong message that lets Indigenous students, faculty and staff know they are welcome at SFU and in every post-secondary institute in B.C.”
“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,” says SFU President Andrew Petter. “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.”