Ground broken for Gordon Oakes-Red Bear Student Centre

A traditional pipe ceremony and an honour song by the Flying Eagle Singers were part of a special event on the University of Saskatchewan campus June 21 that saw the ground broken for the Gordon Oakes-Red Bear Student Centre. Construction of what will be a gathering place for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people at the U of S will start on June 24 with the building expected to open in early 2015.

Speaking on behalf of several generations of the Oakes family, Irene Oakes, daughter of the late Gordon Oakes, said she was pleased the project has become a reality, and that "this building is going to carry on the work he wanted to do." The building's namesake was born in 1932 in the Cypress Hills on what is now the Nekaneet First Nation. He died in February 2002. He is described as having been a spiritual man throughout his life who guided many within his community and across the province. Oakes held a strong belief in education while honouring ones culture and traditions.

The centre, designed by world-renowned architect Douglas Cardinal, will be an inclusive space that will house the Aboriginal Students' Centre, Indigenous Students' Council and will have spaces for ceremony and learning. Its location between the Arts Building and the Murray Building make it central to campus. Irene Oakes also commented on the importance of the horse as a symbol within the building. "We need to be like a team of horses," she said, pulling together and living in balance.

U of S President Ilene Busch-Vishniac told the crowd gathered for the ground breaking that "we all want the same thing - health, happiness and prosperity ... and educational attainment is key to meeting those goals. I hope this building will become a symbol of student support, success and cultural understanding. The overarching goal of this university is to do everything in our power to provide high-quality education to all people of this province."

She added the centre will be a prominent visual touchstone for Aboriginal students who need to be able to recognize themselves in the curriculum, the pedagogy and the physical environment of the University of Saskatchewan.

Max FineDay, president of the U of S Students' Union, said the ground breaking "marks the day when students can stop waiting for promises and see concrete action." He said he has heard, since he first arrived on campus four years ago, that the current Aboriginal Students' Centre is "just temporary, and we passed that legend on to new first years." The building is an important first step but FineDay said a number of questions still need to be explored, including what a treaty university looks like, and what a treaty degree looks like. "There is more work to be done."

Perry Belgarde, chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations,  said the Gordon Oakes-Red Bear Student Centre represents the university's effort to support students, and speaks volumes "about us living and working together on this land. Keep building our circle strong," he added.

Other speakers included FSIN Vice-Chief Bobby Cameron, Rob Norris, MLA for Saskatoon-Greystone, U of S Chancellor Blaine Favel and Chief Delbert Wapass of the Thunderchild First Nation who also served as emcee for the event.

As part of the planning and in preparation for the ground breaking, the president took part in a sweatlodge and tobacco ceremony to honour the traditions and recognize Aboriginal Peoples' important role on campus.

Seventeen elm trees will be removed to make room for the centre, and the wood from the trees will be incorporated into the design of the building. It is university policy that whenever plant growth is disturbed due to age, health, storm damage or development, tree replacement occurs.

The contract for construction of the building was awarded to Clark Builders which is headquartered in Edmonton with operations in Saskatoon, Calgary, Yellowknife and Fort McMurray. The building is expected to cost $17 million, with $4.7 million coming from private donations.

For more information about the building visit the university's Gordon Oakes-Red Bear Student Centre website.

The ground breaking is part of the university's celebration of National Aboriginal Day. The institution also unveiled Aboriginal symbols that will be part of its future marketing efforts. The symbols can be viewed at the U of S Aboriginal Initiatives website.
Share this story