Strong currents of recognition and repair ran through the words of First Nations elders and chiefs as they marked the opening of Royal Roads University’s new aboriginal education centre on Monday.
“I have so much on my mind when it comes to this land here,” Esquimalt Chief Andy Thomas said. “We need to find answers and create those processes of healing in places like this. … I can’t just ignore it, because as a chief these are issues that I face every day.”
The centre, located in what used to be the school’s boathouse, is intended to be a place to foster educational opportunities for indigenous youth, as well as provide a space for communication between First Nations groups and with the larger community.
Thomas, who played an important role in the development of the centre, spoke of the challenges that still face the First Nations youth when it comes to education. With the traditional industries of fishing and forestry no longer thriving, Thomas believes a new direction needs to be found for First Nations youth.
“You’ll have to be able to find the answers for our children, to get through the system, to be able to get here. Right now they’re still dropping out at Grade 8, Grade 10,” Thomas said. “These are the things that have to be addressed if these institutes are going to be working for our people.”
Originally named the Aboriginal Learning and Cultural Centre purely for the purpose of applying for government funding, as RRU president Allan Cahoon laughed about, the true name of the building was chosen by way of a silent vote at the gathering: Blue Heron House (sneq’wa). The building is located by the water to reflect the local First Nations’ relationship with the sea.
The university currently has 156 indigenous students within a number of programs. The new building will host support services for indigenous students, it will be the location of various faculty meetings and it will be a space for an elder’s circle, which supports students, faculty and staff.
B.C. Minister of Advanced Education Amrik Virk attended the ceremony and spoke candidly about his time working on First Nations reserves as an RCMP officer and the challenges he witnessed.
“I saw so much hope in those children I ran across, and yet my heart was broken many a time,” Virk said. “This is a real opportunity here. … This is a structure but it’s about the people that inhabit it, it’s about the people that are going to come here, the people that are going to work together.”
The province put up $600,000 to support the project.
Cahoon discussed the work behind the project, of the consultations with First Nations partners, of the use of recycled wood from Comox and of the importance of the building.
“This land is important to Royal Roads as an educational catalyst, but we recognize that much earlier on this land was used for a gathering place for the Coast Salish people,” Cahoon said. “It was an educational site, as well as a cultural site, as well as a social site. The opening of the centre symbolizes the fact that we recognize that history and that tradition.”
Along with the new building, there is a new position to support it, with Asmanahi Antoine joining school staff as the indigenous education and student services manager.
She sees her job as being one of strengthening connections between RRU and First Nations groups, along with supporting aboriginal students and advocating for the creation of indigenous educational programming.
“There isn’t a mandate that there’s indigenous programming yet, but we’re hoping that’s what we’ll be working towards,” Antoine said. “I’m excited.”