Honouring the past and looking forward to the future on Orange Shirt Day

October 01, 2020

SFU’s Office for Aboriginal Peoples (OAP) held a special ground awakening ceremony to honour the intergenerational survivors of the Indian residential school system while looking forward to the future at the site of the new First Peoples’ Gathering House.

In Indigenous culture, the ancestors and spirits are called down to Mother Earth to awaken the ground, which for this ceremony, took place in front of the Strand Hall Annex at the SFU Burnaby campus. Gabriel George, from Tsleil-Waututh Nation, and Indigenous Studies professor Rudy Reimer, led the event, which began with a song, to call on the ancestors.

Chief Leah George Wilson, Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, lead speaker at the ceremony spoke about recognizing the past but with a view of looking ahead, by way of the Gathering House, “Happy to be here at Simon Fraser as we are finding ways to move forward together.”

Eldon Yellowhorn, an SFU alumnus and SFU-ARC member, was a part of the ceremony and has helped champion the project. “I really believe that the building, once it’s up, it will exceed our dreams, it will be a very special place for all of us.

“I’m really delighted to be here today to give a good, welcoming awakening to the spirits and ancestors and all the future students who are going to enjoy it.”

Ron Johnston, interim director, OAP, took one of Yellowhorn’s classes in the 1990’s, and recalled talking together about a longhouse. “We always talked about having the need for a gathering house, a special place where Indigenous education could live and thrive at SFU, a home away from home for our people.

“So today’s a special day, that we’re doing it in a good way, that we’re honouring the lands and doing it in accordance with our oral traditions and Coast Salish Protocols.”

Indigenous Studies professor Rudy Reimer called on witnesses to remember and recall the event, including Coast Salish artist Angela George, a recent graduate of SFU’s Executive MBA in Indigenous Business Leadership; Deanna Reder, Indigenous Studies associate professor and department chair; Marie Brunelle, human rights office director; and Sobhana Jaya-Madhavan, associate vice-president, external relations.

Jaya-Madhavan spoke about her duty as a witness, “I will remember that people talked about this day with gratitude, with excitement and with great imagination, not with bitterness, because we all can see that this building behind us will be replaced with something extraordinarily beautiful.”

The First Peoples’ Gathering House is part of SFU’s commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and will provide culturally appropriate Indigenous teaching, learning and gathering space. A culturally appropriate ceremonial hall, within a Coast Salish longhouse,  was a specific Call to Action in the Walk This Path With Us report.

SFU President Joy Johnson recognized the many people who have made the dream of a Gathering House a reality.  

“Today represents a milestone that many of you have worked hard to make happen. I want to recognize Eldon, Ron and others who have worked so hard to bring us to this point in time. I want to thank you for your hard work. I want to thank you for your commitment and for continuing to work with me, with the university, to build a welcome and inclusive campus.”

The First Peoples’ Gathering House will open in 2023. The three lead architects, Ouri Scott, Shelley Craig and Jake Chakasim from Urban Arts Architecture Inc., were blanketed, to honour them and inspire them and their work.

Orange Shirt Day

The event was held September 30, which is Orange Shirt Day, a national day of recognition that aims to educate people and promote awareness about the Indian residential school system in Canada.

Chief Leah George Wilson spoke about the meaning of holding this ground awakening event on this day.

“It was a traumatic experience for our parents, and our grandparents, our great grandparents. It’s important for us to, in this reconciliation journey that we’re on, it’s important for us to recognize what happened. Not to relive it, to acknowledge it, to recognize it, to name it and to find ways to move forward.”

Reder, as the Chair of Indigenous Studies, noted that she will teach a course on the history of residential schools. “I will remember this day and remember the children’s story that tells this story, which I will bring into curriculum because we don’t want to forget. We want to remember so we can move forward.”

Orange Shirt Day in Surrey

At the Surrey campus Sept. 25, Kevin Kelly and Michael Kelly Gabriel from Kwantlen First Nation, supported by OAP, led a physically distanced drumming circle to mark Orange Shirt Day.

A physically distanced drumming circle was held at SFU Surrey on Sept. 25th to mark Orange Shirt Day.

Steve Dooley, Surrey campus executive director, said it was a touching event. “With great humility and deep sadness, we listened to stories from families of residential school survivors. At one point, a homeless person joined the circle; Kevin Kelly honoured this man and I could tell the man was deeply touched by the show of love and support. I hope that all of us will take time to acknowledge Orange Shirt Day and take the learnings forward.”