It’s been hailed as a step towards cultural and educational reconciliation. The Gordon Oakes Red Bear Student Centre (GORBSC) has officially opened its doors on the University of Saskatchewan campus Wednesday.
It was standing room only in the large rotunda as a dozen dignitaries, community leaders, family members and special guests welcomed people to the centre and praised the building’s design and purpose.
The facility, which offers study rooms, classes and a gathering space has been well received by students like Requel Medicine Rope. Originally from the Carry the Kettle First Nation, she said the centre provides a home away from home during the long school months.
“Here in Saskatoon, I didn’t feel that connection to home and I really missed home. So knowing this building is here and I have that small connection to home, I feel really close.”
Regan Ratt-Misponas said the current Aboriginal Student Centre’s small space allowed for an intimate community to develop.
“But now it’s become more open (at the GORBSC), so we’re able to diversify and build a larger and stronger community with many people coming in.”
University president Peter Stoicheff said the centre is a sign of respect towards aboriginal students.
“I like to think that when you open the door and come into this building, you are unlocking the door to reconciliation,” he said.
Student union president Jack Saddleback expects the centre will be a beacon to attract more aboriginal students to the university.
“For me, it’s a reflection of being able to see myself as an indigenous person, here at a post secondary education institution,” he said. “We need that for indigenous students. We need them to see themselves in these places.”
Treaty Commissioner George Lafond, who chaired the project during the first few years of its conception, said they could have chosen to redecorate a space in Place Riel or renovate another space, but they wanted to do more to “show people and our own people that this university really took them serious, and we were serious about this whole issue of reconciliation.”
The building was designed by world famous architect Douglas Cardinal, who is also responsible for the Natural History Museum in Ottawa. Cardinal said he was most proud of the way the building brought people together.
“Everybody really put their hearts and souls into putting the building together, so it’s exciting to see it all come together,” he said. “It’s a celebration of life, a new future and new reconciliation.”
The centre is named after Gordon Oakes Red Bear, a former chief of the Nekaneet First Nation and former Wanuskewin Heritage Park board member who pursued Treaty Land Entitlement. He also created the Treaty 4 flag.
“Gordon Oakes really embodied the treaty spirit of working together,” Lafond said.
Oakes died in 2002, but his granddaughter Laryn Oakes was at the opening ceremony to speak on behalf of the family.
“I know that my nana’s looking down at us now and smiling,” she said, fighting back tears.
Wednesday’s grand opening also included a pipe ceremony, drummers, a Gordon Oakes painting unveiling and songs by Juno award-winning musician Susan Aglukark.