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City of Burnaby commits $5M to First Peoples’ Gathering House at SFU

April 25, 2023

The City of Burnaby is providing $5 million towards the completion of the First Peoples’ Gathering House, a ceremonial space designed to celebrate Indigenous knowledge and culture, currently under construction at Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby campus.

The project, first announced in 2020 with joint funding from the provincial government ($11.4 million) and SFU ($8.6 million), is planned for completion in 2024.

Acting Mayor Sav Dhaliwal announced the funding at a formal event at the site on April 22, 2023, together with Indigenous, provincial and municipal government, and university leaders.

Being built on the traditional unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish), səl̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh), and kʷikʷəƛ̓əm (Kwikwetlem) nations on which SFU is located, with the support of Host Nations, the First Peoples’ Gathering House will provide a culturally appropriate ceremonial space for Indigenous cultural events, and enable the university and broader communities to gain a deeper understanding of Indigenous peoples through education and engagement.

Its legacy will extend beyond current students, staff and visitors to provide a safe and welcoming space for future generations at SFU. Ron Johnston, director of SFU’s Office for Aboriginal Peoples, says the gathering house will be “the heart and soul of Indigeneity” at SFU.

“Longhouses are the centre of our Indigenous culture, as sacred places in our communities where teaching, learning, ceremony and protocols are upheld and practiced,” says Johnston, an SFU alumnus and member of the former SFU Aboriginal Reconciliation Council (SFU-ARC). “We thank the City of Burnaby for recognizing the importance of this space to the university and to the community.”

The new funding demonstrates the City’s commitment to Truth and Reconciliation, by working with Indigenous peoples to build and improve relationships between non-Indigenous and Indigenous communities.

“The City of Burnaby is proud to contribute towards the creation of this space for the learning, expression and celebration of the rich and vibrant First Nations teachings and culture of this region,” said Mayor Mike Hurley. “As a city, we are committed to working with Indigenous peoples and, in particular, with the First Nations on whose territory the City of Burnaby is now located, to build positive and meaningful relationships.”

The project aligns with Action 3 of the university’s 2017 Walk This Path With Us Report to create safe and welcoming spaces that reflect Indigenous identities for learning and working. It also represents an important step towards lasting reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

“Upholding Truth and Reconciliation is a priority for SFU—as it is for the City of Burnaby—and I am thrilled at the support we have received for the First Peoples' Gathering House,” says SFU President Joy Johnson. “Reconciliation is a shared responsibility, and I am grateful for every partner and collaborator who is helping us build a safe and welcoming cultural space for Indigenous students, faculty, staff and community members.”

“It’s a wonderful thing to see the number of partners who are supporting the building of the First Peoples’ Gathering House at SFU,” said Katrina Chen, MLA for Burnaby-Lougheed. “The gathering place will be a welcoming place and well used by Indigenous students and community members alike.”

Following the announcement, dignitaries were invited to participate in the SFU First Nations, Métis & Inuit Student Association’s (FNMISA) inaugural Honouring Indigenous Students Powwow held on campus to celebrate the end of the school year and honour Indigenous students, past and present.

The journey from concept to construction

The concept for a First Peoples’ Gathering House grew from discussions with Elders and Local Nation Knowledge Keepers about the importance of recognizing Indigenous students’ journeys, and balancing their culture with finding their place in western education systems as they pursue higher education.

A ground awakening ceremony was held in the fall of 2020, a few months after the project was officially announced. Construction at the site is now underway.

Designed in the Coast Salish tradition, the 15,000 square foot space features a ceremonial entry and a Great Hall for hosting special events of up to 300 attendees. The space will also include an Elders room, classroom, wellness room, multi-generational Indigenous peoples’ lounge, and  a food service kitchen.

Located east of SFU’s Trottier Observatory and across from Strand Hall, the First Peoples’ Gathering house has been designed by Tlicho Dene architect Ouri Scott, principal at Vancouver’s Urban Arts Architecture Inc., and one of B.C.’s first indigenous female architects, who is known for her focus on incorporating local Indigenous communities and culture in her design work.