SFU fails to properly consult Indigenous students (again) and peoples regarding new First Peoples’ Gathering House (again)

Orange Shirt Day, FPGH ground awakening, and statements from the FNSA and SFSS

Joy Johnson speaks at the First Peoples' Gathering House ceremony with attendees following physical distancing recommendations. Image courtesy of Joy Johnson's Twitter, @drjoyjohnson.

By Harvin Bhathal, Features Editor

On Orange Shirt Day, SFU held a ground awakening ceremony for the First Peoples Gathering House (FPGH), which will open in 2023.

The FPGH will be a space on the Burnaby campus that is meant to create a “safe, welcoming[,] and supportive environment for Indigenous students, staff, faculty, and community members,” according to the Office of Aboriginal Peoples. 

But to accomplish that, wouldn’t input from Indigenous students, staff, and faculty, and Host Nations, be required to create a culturally appropriate space? First Nations Student Association (FNSA) and its members certainly believe so.

“[SFU] definitely need[s] to be focusing more on getting proper representation of Indigenous student voices, because that’s something they’ve been lacking there,” said Kali (she/her/hers), treasurer of the FNSA, in an interview with The Peak

“There was no proper outreach to hearing indigenous student voices and [ . . . ] a lack of representation at their meetings of Indigenous students [ . . . ] [T]hey need to be hearing what is proper protocol within the Host Nations, especially when it comes to creating a ceremonial space. That’s a part of our recommendations,” continued Kali, referring to the association’s statement released on October 1, 2020.

The statement outlines a list of recommendations for SFU to follow in regards to the building of the FPGH.

  • “Proper and ongoing consultation with Host Nations[, including] but is not limited to protocol around ceremonial spaces, consultation to key community members from Host Nations, this includes Chief and Council, Elders, Matriarchs, Knowledge Keepers.
  • Proper and ongoing consultation with key pillar community members, such as Indigenous Student Centre and First Nations Student Association[.]
  • Indigenous student outreach to ensure Indigenous student voices are heard[.]
  • Ongoing updates about the First Peoples[‘] Gathering House process that are public and accessible[.]
  • More student involvement and seats on the Aboriginal Reconciliation Council[.]
  • Meaningful consultation with SFU and the ARC Report.”

Joy Johnson did not respond to an interview request but Ron Johnston, Director of the Office for Aboriginal Peoples (OAP), responded on behalf of SFU to requests from The Peak regarding the FPGH.

 “SFU has carried out an extensive consultation process regarding the First Peoples’ Gathering House and that process is ongoing. Consultations began in September 2016 through the work of the Aboriginal Reconciliation Council (ARC), in which the need for a ceremonial hall/longhouse was identified, “stated Johnson. 

“ARC engaged a board range of groups over a year of consultations comprising open forums and information sessions, and the committee included student representation. Consultations continued in 2019 to choose the site for the facility, to define the project vision and site program spaces.

“On November 5, 2019, a vision workshop was held with the Indigenous Student Centre (ISC) staff and students. In January 2020, a site-focused workshop was held at the ISC and an online survey was made available for students who couldn’t attend.”

In an interview with The Peak, Zachery (he/him/his), an FNSA Representative, added that “the conduct of building our ceremonial space is very important too [ . . . ] [W]hen you’re building a ceremonial space, a lot of things that people, settler architects, don’t know about [is] that they need to verify with Host Nations.”

Urban Arts Architecture Inc. (UAI) is being tasked with building the FPGH. The OAP shared a detailed report from UAI with The Peak regarding their vision, program, and site selection for the FPGH, which includes information about the project and their engagement process. 

However, when the FNSA were asked if they had seen this report before, Kali responded, “No, this is new to us[,]” which speaks to their concerns about the lack of proper consultation with Indigenous students at SFU. 

Lead architects Jake Chakasim, Shelley Craig, and Ouri Scott were at the ceremony and blanketed to honour them. Two of the lead architects are Indigenous: Scott, a Tłı̨chǫ Dene architect from the Northwest Territories, and Chakism, a Cree intern architect from the Mushkegowuk Territory in Northern Ontario, both of whom live in Vancouver.

These nations have different protocols for gathering houses, so while Scott and Chakism currently reside in Vancouver, it will be important for them to consider the protocols of the unceded territories of the Musqueam/xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Squamish/Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh/sel̓íl̓witulh Nations.

But Craig’s role as a white person and founder of Urban Arts Architecture is critical to ensure the voices of these nations are heard. Matthew Provost (he/him/his), SFSS’ VP of Student Services, said in a statement released from his Instagram, “The onus should not be on Indigenous [peoples] to take up the emotional labour and explanation on why we need to be present in these discussions.” 

Craig’s privilege in being white and in a position of power has to be used solely for the benefit of Indigenous students, and Indigenous peoples from these Host Nations. Fortunately, she has a background in advocating for Indigenous peoples as she recently been working to Master Plan the University of Victoria’s Law expansion to accommodate the first Indigenous Law program in Canada.

Zachery continued, “[The] [b]uilding of ceremonial buildings [is] sacred and they need knowledge keepers, they need matriarchs, they need elders [ . . . ] they need people to come in and guide them through it. 

“Otherwise, what they’re building can’t in good name be called a ceremonial space, because it’s not made of that good medicine,” a term used by Indigenous peoples, which Kali describes as “something that is good for you mentally, spiritually, physically, and emotionally, and is done with good intent.”

Despite Johnston’s statement on behalf of SFU, the FNSA believe that the good intent is missing with the lack of Indigenous consultation, specifically amongst students from SFU. Provost echoed these sentiments in a statement released on Instagram, “Spaces that are intended for Indigenous students and Indigenous communities without their input or experiential knowledge are not spaces for them.”

While SFU has consulted with Indigenous community members such as Chief Leah George Wilson of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation (lead speaker at the ceremony), and Eldon Yellowhorn, an SFU alumnus and member of the Aboriginal Reconciliation Council, it is not enough.

Johnston continued, “Twelve workshops, tours, presentations and open houses have been held so far, which included participation from Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, and Kwikwetlem First Nations; the Squamish Nation Education, Employment and Training Committee and Language & Cultural Affairs, First Nations Student Association, the SFU Indigenous Student Centre and the SFU community at large.

“If SFU truly believes that hand picking folks to represent a whole community during the reconciliation process is adequate enough to check a box, we are here to tell you there is more that needs to be done,” expressed Provost.

“We’re hoping our letter gets the kind of critical attention needed to kind of spur change,” said Zachery. “We’re hoping that this letter is kind of like the end all to that because it’s happened so many times in the past. We just don’t want to see it happening again,” referring to the SFU Atrium built 20 years ago.

“The Atrium was supposed to be built as a space for Indigenous students, as that’s what Indigenous students and the FNSA were advocating for at the time. The FSNA even campaigned to have money allocated towards building/designing the space. In the consultation process for the space, SFU did not listen to the Indigenous students,” said Kali.

“Once the space was opened, they made it into a public space as it is used now. Even today, Indigenous groups at SFU do not even have priority to book the space if we would like to use it. This is just another example of how SFU does not prioritize Indigenous students when doing Indigenous projects, as this space was supposed to be for Indigenous students and now we are not even able to use it.” 

Still, Kali and Zachery feel hopeful “that SFU will do this in a good way [ . . . ] [T]he letter we felt was necessary to show our concerns as the [FNSA], representative of the Indigenous student body.”

But Provost stated, “I am tired of seeing the onus being put on [us] to fix the problems these institutions created. Indigenous students’ voices are [ . . . ] central to reconciliation, decolonizing, and Indigenizing institutions. Reconciliation in an academic setting can not occur unless you include Indigenous students.”

“Like the saying goes, nothing about us without us, and that should be at the forefront of their mind when it comes to Indigenous-related building [and] projects,” declared Kali.

“I stand in solidarity with the First Nations Student Association’s letter and recommendations that have been towards SFU and the [ARC]. I will do my best to support whatever you need,” 

Provost concluded with a message to the university, “SFU[,] I promise to hold you accountable because Indigenous students are tried. It is time to support your Indigenosut students SFU, it’s time to do better. 

“Prove to us reconciliation isn’t dead.”

Johnston ended his statement, “[The OAP] will be reaching out to the FNSA to discuss their concerns and look forward to continuing to work with them, and others, on this important project.