A fresh space on Selkirk College’s Castlegar Campus welcomes students from diverse cultural backgrounds to join together in dialogue, knowledge and understanding.
During the first full week of classes at the regional post-secondary, students, faculty and staff joined together with Elders to officially open the college’s first Indigenous classroom. Beginning with a smudging ceremony outside, students taking the Indigenous Studies 287 course entered a beautiful room configured and adorned in a manner that inspires interconnected learning.
“This classroom is a collective vision that is meant to inspire students and faculty by sharing the knowledge of our Indigenous Elders, artists, scientists and storytellers, acknowledging the right to practice and articulate the wisdom of our ancestors,” said Indigenous Studies Instructor Elizabeth Ferguson, who put forward the idea of an Indigenous classroom. “Here we invite the voices of the ancestors to guide us in our understanding of our responsibility to the land, to respect the spirit that lives in all, to teach with our trickster stories and to bless our connections and interrelationship with all that is. Here we will embrace renewal practices and embed our values so that others may see how we walk in a world that is in a constant state of flux. We invite all to share this knowledge with us.”
Set in a permanent circular configuration and featuring brilliant wood furnishings built inhouse from scratch by facilities team member Bob Kalmakoff, the bright space sets an immediate tone of openness. The focal-point in middle of the room is a large moon mask rug created by Kwakwaka’wakw artist Rande Cook.
Selkirk College’s Manager of Indigenous Education & Engagement Dianne Biin told the class of mainly non-Indigenous students that the space is for everyone to share.
“You are in a period of time right now that is very powerful,” Biin told students. “There is a lot you will be hearing and learning that will be new, and that’s okay. There are elements that will ground you while you are in this classroom. It is our space to learn together, to be with one another and to do things together.”
One of those grounding elements was a separate smudging and awakening ceremony that occurred in the room before students entered on the week of classes. This ceremony was done to ensure learning occurs in a holistic way and provides a safe place for learning and respectful dialogue.
The classroom is part of Selkirk College’s overall Indigenization efforts. Elder Murhi Iskwe Kencayd told those assembled that sitting in the space is both emotional and uplifting.
“Things have changed so very much in my lifetime, it is better than I could ever possibly imagine from when I was a kid,” she said. “People called me a dirty half-breed and being First Nations was not something we could be proud of, it was something we were told not to talk about. So much progress has been made over the years, it astounds me that we are in this moment with others who are starting to learn our stories and learn our history.”
Elder and president of the West Kootenay Métis Society Don Courson added that gathering together is a way to make change.
“We are all in a constant state of learning and being here hits the heart,” he said. “The inclusiveness and engagement that will be made possible through this classroom gives you a chance to learn and share.”
Joining Together Across the Nation
The Federal Government has designated September 30 as the new National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Selkirk College will join public post-secondary institutions across British Columbia in marking the day that responds to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #80 to honour survivors, their families and communities, and ensure that public commemoration of the history of residential schools and recognition of the ongoing trauma to Indigenous peoples remains a vital component of the reconciliation process.
Selkirk College campuses will be closed on September 30, but the day is not intended to be time off from learning.
“Every time you revisit the stories, you absorb something different,” Biin says. “However, you are not ready to do the learning until you are willing to hear the truth. We need to help foster an understanding that this is not simply a day off, that this day does indeed affect every single Canadian citizen. We need to get to a point of healing so reconciliation can proceed, and that will happen when the non-Indigenous population becomes interested, curious and willing to take the step of learning about something that will challenge how they perceived Canadian history and relations.”
You can learn more about Indigenous Services at Selkirk College at: selkirk.ca/learning-reflection