Aboriginal Services fundraising for a longhouse at BCIT

Aboriginal Services at BCIT is fundraising to build a traditional Coast Salish-style longhouse. The space will be built outside of the BCIT Aboriginal Gathering Space in SW1 on the Burnaby campus, on the grassy knoll outside of the southwest entrance.

The longhouse is the second phase in a three-phase project aimed to improve post-secondary experience of the First Nations student population at BCIT campus. Currently, BCIT has one of the largest populations of Aboriginal students among post-secondary institutions in the Lower Mainland.

According to the BCIT Foundation, the post-secondary completion rate for Aboriginal population aged 25-64 is 40 per cent, versus 56 per cent rate for non-Aboriginal population. Aboriginal Services joined together with BCIT Foundation in hopes to increase the numbers for the Aboriginal population.

Joanne Stone-Campbell, coordinator of Aboriginal Services at BCIT, said it is important that Aboriginal students feel welcome and safe in their learning environment in order to complete their post-secondary education.

“It’s just providing a place where someone could come and not have to strip down who they are, but to come as they are, and just build on who they are, and not be ostracized in any way,” Stone-Campbell told The Link.

Stone-Campbell noted that history does not set a good precedent for Aboriginal students in a non-Aboriginal educational system, and it is important to make it right for the present and future generations. The current project’s goal is to embrace the cultural differences and educate non-Aboriginal community on the First Nations traditions to reduce the existing cultural gap.

The first phase of the project, the Aboriginal Gathering Space, Mi Chap Tukw (meaning ‘home away from home’) was completed in 2011, and is now used to provide various support services to the Aboriginal student community.

It was designed by Aboriginal architect Alfred Waugh, and incorporates traditional First Nations materials like cedar, as well as culturally significant color combination of red, white, yellow and black.

The second phase consists of building a 100-seat longhouse to provide more space and opportunity for students of all backgrounds to celebrate the First Nations culture. The longhouse will be used as a study space for students, as well as a place to host various cultural activities, such as drum songs and smudging ceremonies.

The longhouse will also be used for honouring ceremonies for Aboriginal students and staff. Designs of the longhouse include a meditation space for students to rest, or seek council with an elder or their peers.

Mikah Fox, Aboriginal student representative of BCIT’s student association, said having a place like the longhouse would help bring the community together, and share Aboriginal traditions with the rest of the students.

“There are Aboriginal people from all walks of life, all over Canada who are here at BCIT, and they just need a place to congregate and just to feel whole,” Fox said, “and to share our culture with other students. BCIT is very multicultural and we take that very seriously, showing our culture and sharing it with everyone.”

Another purpose of the longhouse will be to bring in students from different disciplines, and educate them on working with the Aboriginal community.

“We’re teaching them how to work with Aboriginal people, following protocol, consultations — in all aspects you have to work with Aboriginal people,” Stone-Campbell said. “If you work in geomatics, or health, everyone has to consult with an Aboriginal community now; it’s just part of law.”

Stone-Campbell said that Aboriginal Services currently offers cultural awareness classes for students in mining and forestry, but it will be a more complete experience if the students are able to learn about First Nations culture inside a traditional space such as the longhouse.

“We want to teach people who we are, what we have to offer, and that we have some gifts, too.”

The third phase of the project is the creation of an Aboriginal art gallery in the hallway outside of the Gathering Space. The space is currently used to commemorate various achievements of Aboriginal students during their time of study at BCIT. Stone-Campbell says that there are many First Nations students on campus that incorporate their cultural influences in their coursework.

“There are students in trades who make mailboxes that have beautiful Native designs on them. We also have a student who makes eagles out of steel,” Stone-Campbell shared. “Students who do new media, they include Native language in their digital animation, and we could put those displays out there.”

Stone-Campbell said that the art gallery at BCIT will be the first place to celebrate First Nations art in the Burnaby area. Aboriginal Services plans to work with Burnaby City Council and borrow archived artwork available in Burnaby in order to display it in the gallery.

Aboriginal Services are currently raising funds for the second and third phases of the project through BCIT Foundation. They have recently received two cedar logs, donated by BCIT, to be carved into totem poles and put at the entrance of the longhouse.

The end goal of the project is an inclusive space that supports Aboriginal students throughout their educational experience, celebrates and preserves their unique culture, and promotes integration and partnership with the rest of the multicultural community at BCIT. Stone-Campbell shared her vision for the project:

“It’s a safe place, it’s a place where you can come and learn your culture, share, build relationships. We understand who you are, and why you are the way you are. So we are a place to educate people and to show that our culture is very important to us, and it’s important for everybody.”

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