Second-year student JC Steele, a member of the Indigenous Students’ Council, recalled one particular instance that happened at the popular soup and bannock weekly lunch. “There was a table of girls sitting, and when the elder got up and started talking they were looking around— kind of uncomfortable like they shouldn’t be here—and they didn’t know what was going on … and someone just walked up to them and said ‘everyone is invited.’”
That interaction has stuck with Steele as one example of how welcoming the centre has been for students. The member of the Cote First Nation said the centre created a sense of community in the transition to university.
“For a lot of students, especially first-year students, it can be very intimidating to put yourself out there,” Steele said. “And so the centre always has something going on that invites students in and gives you a chance to meet people.”
The Gordon Oakes Red Bear Student Centre opened its doors to the university community last January and hosted a series of grand opening celebrations in early February 2016. Over the past year, the centre has been dedicated to supporting the academic and personal success of Métis, First Nations and Inuit students and has become a place for students to connect with one another, access campus supports and participate in ceremonies.
Patti McDougall, vice-provost of teaching and learning, said the centre has helped set a tone for the future of the U of S by signifying the importance of Indigenous engagement and student success.
“It sends a message to the people who come onto our campus—and that includes the people who live and work on our campus, study on our campus, and also the people who come and visit us on our campus— that the work that we’re doing, the goals that the president has set out for us, that that is central and paramount and it is not fleeting,” said McDougall. “This is not a one-shot deal for us.”
Looking to the future, McDougall wants to continue to build on the support systems for Indigenous students and expand the work of the centre.
“I think that the next phase is to think about how we can do more in that space from a programming perspective, and a big part of that is supporting the work of the Aboriginal Students’ Centre,” she said.
Increased programming options are also on the mind of Graeme Joseph, team leader of First Nations, Métis and Inuit student success at the U of S.
“One of the really important things that the new space provides to us is capacity, both in terms of the size of the events we can offer, but also the diversity of events as well,” said Joseph. “We’re trying to not only serve more students, but we’re looking at our programming to try to serve a greater diversity of students.” Since moving into the centre, weekly smudging ceremonies on Monday mornings and a parents’ group have been added to the range of programming available to students. Joseph said more services are planned, with staff currently working collaboratively with different partners at the U of S to expand offerings focused on student wellness, leadership and cultural programming, in particular.
Joseph said the centre is actively used as a study space, a place for events, and is a home for academic and cultural programming.
“First and foremost, we are a student centre and we are dedicated to supporting Aboriginal student success at the university,” he said.
Joseph went on to discuss the role the centre plays in intercultural education, noting how many non-Indigenous students are coming to the centre to learn and take part in ceremonies. Joseph was thrilled that the centre was able to reach more students and play a role in inclusive and respectful learning about Indigenous cultures.
“It brings people into our community, and it shows who and what we are about,” he said.
Steele is also excited about what the centre will continue to mean for students.
“You find your own identity here, you build your own little community and you get so much more out of your academic experience.”
Jordan Sherbino is a communications strategist in Aboriginal Initiatives.