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A place for all

Memorial plans for Aboriginal House on St. John's campus

special feature: Aboriginal Peoples

Part of a special feature focused on celebrating and recognizing the contribution and impact of Aboriginal Peoples in Newfoundland and Labrador and highlighting contemporary topics and opportunities related to Aboriginal Peoples worldwide. This feature coincides with Aboriginal Peoples Week running March 21-24.

By Meaghan Whelan

Picture a wooden building with graceful lines, big windows and a large, open space for gatherings.

Imagine a campus focal point with space for academic and cultural programming, a design aesthetic that reflects Aboriginal culture and an atmosphere that is welcoming to all.

It’s not yet a reality, but the creation of Aboriginal House on Memorial’s St. John’s campus is something Catharyn Andersen, special advisor to the president on Aboriginal Affairs, is working diligently towards.

Recommendation made

“In 2009, the Task Force Report on Aboriginal Initiatives identified the need for expanded, dedicated space for Aboriginal students on campus and the concept of Aboriginal House has evolved from there,” Ms. Andersen explained.

Catharyn Andersen is special advisor to the president on Aboriginal affairs.
Catharyn Andersen is special advisor to the president on Aboriginal affairs.
Photo: Chris Hammond

Right now, there is limited space available for Aboriginal students.

“The Aboriginal Resource Office does a great job of creating programs and services, yet the student space is so small that often there is not enough room for all the students who would like to use it,” said Ms. Andersen.

Early stages

Over the last three years, Memorial has been investigating what a space devoted to Aboriginal programming and culture could accomplish and what it would look like. Through open consultation with the university community and focused discussions around which features should be included, the concept for Aboriginal House has begun to take shape.

“The current plans for Aboriginal House boast more than I could have ever dreamed of five years ago.”  Thomas Dymond

The design concept includes a large, ceremonial gathering space that opens to the east and is oriented to the four directions, plenty of wood and natural light, an elder’s lounge, study spaces and meeting rooms. There is space for tutoring and academic classes as well as traditional cultural activities, such as drum circles and smudging and kullik/qulliq lighting. There are also plans for the Senate, the university’s academic decision-making body, to hold its meetings within Aboriginal House.

The building would be built between the M.O. Morgan (music) building and the Henrietta Harvey (mathematics) building. The space currently contains a warehouse that is in the process of being decommissioned.

Consultative process

Thomas Dymond is Mi’kmaw and a member of the Bear River First Nations Band in Nova Scotia who is currently finishing his master of science degree in kinesiology at Memorial. As the Aboriginal Students’ representative for MUNSU from 2011-14, Mr. Dymond has been involved in the process to determine what Aboriginal space on campus should entail from the beginning.

“The current plans for Aboriginal House boast more than I could have ever dreamed of five years ago,” he said. “As a drummer, I am thrilled that there will be a safe space to practice and perform without also disrupting others. I hope that future generations of students appreciate the dedication and hard work that many students, staff, faculty and community partners have put into the original idea of Aboriginal House to bring it to this point.”

Mr. Dymond believes Aboriginal House will have a tangible impact on the Memorial community. He says feeling a sense of community, belonging and acceptance are common fundamental beliefs in many Aboriginal cultures and that Aboriginal House is one way for Memorial to both attract and retain Aboriginal students.

“It will also serve as an excellent learning experience for non-Aboriginal people. It is important to have allies in the university community and we want Aboriginal House to facilitate learning, diversity, and collaboration.”

Potential landmark

The concept design, by Fougere Menchenton Architecture, was recently approved. The next step is to develop a detailed request for proposals. Memorial plans to seek private sector funding for the building; once these commitments have been secured, the project can get underway.

At the end of the day, Ms. Andersen believes that Aboriginal House has the potential to become a landmark building for Memorial.

“For Aboriginal students who come to St. John’s campus to see their people and culture recognized and celebrated at this institution in such a tangible way, and to create an opportunity for non-Aboriginal students to learn more about the Aboriginal Peoples of our province and country, is extremely powerful.”

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