Brittney Shki-Giizis and Paskwa Lightning lead the procession at the opening of the Indigenous Sharing and Learning Centre at Laurentian University. Also playing at the ceremony are the Young Thunderbird Singers
of the Shkagamik Kwe Health Centre.

By Laura E. Young

SUDBURY–Not only did Laurentian University students Paskwa Lightning and Brittney Shki-Giizis see the completion of the Indigenous Sharing and Learning Centre, they led the procession into the ISLC’s grand opening on June 21, National Aboriginal Day.

For most of their time as Indigenous Studies students, they have shared a cramped corner of campus, tucked away on the second floor of campus, as a gathering space.

The ISLC changes all of that: at 7,500 square feet, the building is located at the new entrance, currently under construction, to the university. The ISLC is also distinct with its centrepiece round room which blends past, present and eco-friendly traditions. It’s equipped with a state of the art multi-media system and has four doors denoting the four directions. The construction features a sustainable green roof.

It’s important to have a place to meet and study with people who share the culture, says  Shki-Giizis, a women’s old style fancy dancer from Dokis First Nation.

“Laurentian University advertises a tri-cultural mandate. I think that’s why  it’s also important to have this [centre] because of that tri-cultural mandate. They’re finally acknowledging us and giving us a place in the university,” she said.

The centre is the beginning of moving beyond just recognizing and acknowledging Indigenous people, she added.

“Now we can showcase our culture in a bigger way here. There’s a kitchen here, too. That’s important for ceremonial things. We can do  a lot more here to encourage our culture and to invite people to learn about our culture.”

For Paskwa Lightning,  a men’s fancy dancer from Samson Cree Nation in Alberta,  it can be daunting to come to university. Students want to hang out with those who are like them, he adds.

“Especially being a First Nations person and coming to a central hub, seeing other Indigenous students is encouraging and makes you feel more comfortable [rather] than just being a little fish in a big pond.”

Lightning’s mother hails from Whitefish River First Nation and he has visited the North since he was a child. He sees the acknowledgment of culture picking up and the ISLC is one of the “many, many, many steps that needs to be taken,” he said.

“It’s a good start. They could have not built it at all and said, ‘Oh, five more years, five more years.’ It’s up and running. The Indigenous offices are here and events are going on. It’s pretty positive.”

Sheila Cote-Meek, associate vice-president academic and Indigenous programs, began leading the project 11 years ago.

The grand opening was a day shimmering with joy, reflection and high emotion for everyone who was connected to the ISLC. The landscaping had been completed in time; the air conditioning in the round room working. The room was packed beyond capacity.

As she looked at the faces of supporters, she was overwhelmed, she reflected after the ceremony.

“I think that’s one of the things that I’ve learned over the 11 years that I’ve been working on  this is that there’s a lot of people [Indigenous and  non-Indigenous] who want to help and want to do the right thing.”

It was also a day that had been long in the making.

In 1997, the Laurentian University Native Education Council conceived of a distinct place on campus for the burgeoning Indigenous student population.

The idea was then to create a Turtle Lodge, a title that evolved into the Indigenous Sharing and Learning Centre. In 2005, during visits from Maori professors in New Zealand, the idea of a gathering place and “home away from home” for all Indigenous students strengthened.

Although the ISLC was conceived in the days before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s reports, we now live in a time of reconciliation, Cote-Meek added.

“I hope this is place of truth where Indigenous people can be who they are and non-Indigenous people can come and learn,” continued Cote-Meek.

For Gaby Pellerin, head of the Indigenous Students Council, the ISLC represents a safe environment where students can embrace their culture with pride. It’s a space of balance and harmony and a symbol of community, so important to the Indigenous way of life, she said.

Located at the new entrance to the university, the ISLC also features rooms for smudging and an area where students from remote communities can contact family and friends back at home at no cost to them.

The cost of the building is $3.2 million.  Donations totaling nearly $1.5 million, with Glencore committing $1 million to the project and RBC investing $400,000, contributed to making this building a possibility. The university matched the remaining necessary funds of the project.

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