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Douglas College opens Aboriginal Gathering Place

A four-metre traditional welcoming pole faces the Fraser River and dominates the new Aboriginal Gathering Place at Douglas College
A four-metre traditional welcoming pole faces the Fraser River and dominates the new Aboriginal Gathering Place at Douglas College's New Westminster campus. It was designed by Coast Salish artist Susan Point.
— image credit: Grant Granger/NewsLeader

Artist George Hemeon looked around the room admiring the handiwork of others and himself in Douglas College's new Aboriginal Gathering Place.

It's the type of sanctuary the member of the Squamish Nation would have appreciated when he was working on getting his bachelor's degree in criminal justice and master's in public administration.

"The room is really important in the sense it provides a comfortable space for aboriginals and non-aboriginals to gather," said Hemeon as he made his way to the official opening ceremonies for the room Thursday. "There are lots of challenges that they face, so providing them with a space to gather is really a supportive type of initiative. It certainly will help in the success that they seek."

In 2005, the provincial government put out a call for post-secondary institutions to provide surroundings conducive to learning and feeling at home for aboriginals.

"The problem was they had only about $17 million for the province and every institution went all out," said Dave Seaweed, aboriginal services coordinator at Douglas. "Our initial proposal was $7.5 million. We were going to put up a three-storey building on the grassy knoll that would have been amazing."

The province pulled back and decided to limit each successful proposal to $600,000. Since Douglas just happened to be redoing the deck on the south side of its New Westminster campus at the time it was able to contribute another $400,000 by building the space there.

The result is a $1 million, 1,884-square foot multipurpose area that can be used as a classroom, study space, student lounge or small ceremonies.

The art includes four poles built by Hemeon in each corner. They represent the four directions of the compass and four phases of the moon. The room is dominated by a four-metre traditional welcoming pole facing the Fraser River designed by Coast Salish artist Susan Point.

The poles were installed in September and there are two large murals to come for the entrance walls. It's actually been in use since April when a cleansing ceremony was done.

"Anyone that approaches us can use it. As long as it's with a good heart, we let them use it," said Seeweed.

In his speech at the opening, B.C. Lieutenant-Governor Steven Point, who is aboriginal, noted Douglas College has 900 native students. "That's an incredible figure."

Point said it's important for everyone to know about the aboriginal heritage this province has.

"Over half the population of the Lower Mainland has been here less than 20 years. They need to hear our story," said Point.

He added a nation is only as strong as its lowest group, and many aboriginals still live in third world conditions and their graduation rates are among the lowest in the province.

Douglas College president Scott McAlpine said it was "critical, absolutely critical" to build the gathering place to develop the future and honour the past. He said at one time there were 400 QayQayt Nation in New Westminster, but the tribe was closed in 1916 by the federal Indian Affairs Ministry.

"We are, and we need to be, a welcoming place for students of all ancestries and we are on QayQayt lands," said McAlpine.

He pointed out the college was named after the British colonial Governor James Douglas, who ruled over British Columbia before it joined confederation and who was of mixed race (his mother was Creole from Barbados) and married to a Cree woman.

"[The room] helps improve the sense of inclusion for aboriginal students and for all students," said McAlpine. "Post-secondary institutions must take specific and deliberate actions to make campuses comfortable for aboriginal students and all students."

QayQayt Chief Rhonda Larrabee, who has been involved with Douglas College since 1994, didn't hesitate to participate in building and designing the gathering place.

"This will be important because it will tell them Douglas College is welcoming and embracing, and it is [working to stop] the racism," said Larrabee.

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