Royal Roads aboriginal relations co-ordinator Greg Sam stands in the space of the future Aboriginal Learning and Cultural Centre.

Aboriginal centre takes shape at Royal Roads

First Nations people will soon have a place to call their own at Royal Roads University.

First Nations people will soon have a place to call their own at Royal Roads University.

The university will begin renovating its retired boathouse next week to make way for its Aboriginal Learning and Cultural Centre.

The former rowing storage space will be transformed into offices, classrooms and a large meeting space, with waterfront views of Esquimalt Lagoon.

Greg Sam, the university’s aboriginal relations co-ordinator, says the centre reflects the RRU property’s deep connection to Coast Salish culture and history.

“Our people used this place to gather herbs and medicines. That’s what it was known for,” said Sam, an elder with the Tsartlip First Nation. “This place was treated with respect. It is sacred. Herbs and medicine served a purpose. People took what they needed and respected the environment.”

Kinetic Construction has been awarded a $742,900 contract to refurbish the sparse, non-insulated wood frame interior into a modern meeting space and learning center. The province donated $600,000 toward the project and RRU is chipping in the $142,000 difference.

“We’re pleased to partner with Royal Roads as they build a centre of learning and culture that will support First Nations students throughout their education,” said Bill Gyles, president of Kinetic Construction.

“The centre will be a welcoming place for students as well as local First Nations communities,” said Mary Bernard, associate vice president research and faculty affairs, who is responsible for aboriginal research on campus. “It will be used for traditional and contemporary teachings and cultural activities.”

The former boathouse buildings are among the few on campus on not labelled with heritage designation – such as Hatley Castle and the Grant building – and can be significantly altered without negotiating with the federal government.

RRU aboriginal centre will hold a similar mandate as the First Peoples House at the University of Victoria, as a welcoming space that acts as a repository and research centre for First Nations history, culture and knowledge.

Sam expects to host and record experts and leaders in traditional knowledge and lore, and language teachers to keep ancient tongues alive.

“With academia, we’re looking at integrating our First Nations traditional knowledge and teaching by ceremonies, by presentations, by bringing in community members,” he said. “We want to bring in community people and leaders to talk about history, language and territory.”

In past years there was talk of building a long house on campus, but that project didn’t find traction. “There used to be a long house here, close by,” Sam said, pointing north over the Esquimalt Lagoon.

An education center found broader support from the university, the province and First Nations in the Greater Victoria area. Sam said local aboriginal leaders were adamant the centre be near the ocean, making the boathouse an ideal fit.

The aboriginal gathering center is part of the university’s broader effort to reach out and connect with Coast Salish nations, and to support First Nations students.

The mainly interior renovations of the boathouse are expected to begin next week. The aboriginal centre should open this summer.