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Indigenous programs soar at University of Victoria

Eleven drummers beat furiously on a large drum as they chanted a song of welcome. Elegantly carved eagles, orcas (killer whales), frogs and bears looked down from eight posts around the edge of the large room. An overflow crowd filled the ceremonial hall of the First Peoples House, a stunning new building that establishes a powerful aboriginal presence in the heart of the University of Victoria campus in British Columbia.

Designed in the shape of a traditional long house, the First Peoples House is a source of pride and a focal point for Native students and staff. It is a sign of the University of Victoria’s progressive approach – the most advanced in Canada – to fostering indigenous programs and encouraging Native students, indigenous teaching and research.


Professor Taiaiake Alfred, Mohawk First Nation, said enormous progress has been made since 1996 when he was hired as the first full-time Native faculty. Shortly after, Professor John Borrows was hired in the Faculty of Law.

“We both worked hard to promote indigenous programs. He strived inside the system, and I acted like an activist,” Alfred said. “In 1997, I told the university’s vice president that this has to be a place where Natives can be Natives, otherwise I’m leaving.”

Having tenured indigenous staff makes a huge difference, he explained. Thinking and acting outside the structure of university hierarchy has also contributed. For example, Indigenous Governance was established as an independent group, which trains leaders from an indigenous viewpoint and philosophy with the understanding that they will work in Native communities. Recently a “caucus” of all permanent indigenous staff was established and, although unofficial, has begun to have significant political leverage.

By about 2000, a critical mass was reached, and that has grown so today there are 17 full-time Native staff and about 30 part-time or sessional staff. The enrollment of Native students is a good measure of the University of Victoria’s success. A decade ago, there were 72 indigenous students. Today, there are approximately 750, of which 100 are in post-graduate programs.

Office of Indigenous Affairs

The Office of Indigenous Affairs is the primary organization responsible for coordinating programs and ensuring indigenous students find a warm, supportive and welcoming atmosphere. It is located in the First Peoples House, which is also home to many essential services.

Many indigenous students find it difficult to leave their communities and support networks. To alleviate that feeling of separation, Native students can attend the indigenous student mini-university summer camp, which provides a one-week taste of life at the university. Once university starts, there is an Indigenous Week of Welcome to break the ice and make friends.

The faculties have indigenous advisors and coordinators to help Native students understand how university works and to suggest classes that best suit their interests. An Indigenous Student Handbook, which contains practical information, is distributed to students.

Elders’ Voices is a special program led by elders from several nations. This honored group helps lead ceremony, protocol and celebration for students, and four of the elders take part in the Elders in Residence program in which they provide support and guidance for students in need. The popularity of this program has exceeded expectations.

Other programs and extracurricular activities, which are usually held at the First Peoples House, include drumming, crafts, talking circles, feast nights and a speaker series. There is also a Native Counselling Centre for those who are finding the transition to university difficult.

Margaret Briere, Sechelt First Nation, who is completing her first year in Child & Youth Care, said, “The First Peoples House is like being at home, even though I’m away from home.”

Roger Smith, Haida First Nation, who just finished his third year in political science with an indigenous minor said, “The First Peoples House has made an enormous difference. Many of us come from rural communities and find life in a big city difficult. I’ve found the Elders in Residence program and the counselling helpful, and I really enjoy the welcome-back and end-of-year feasts.”

The Office of Indigenous Affairs also organizes numerous forums and symposiums, such as the First Nations Renewable Energy Symposium, the Successful Transitions Education Forum and the Traditional Foods Conference.

“There is considerable involvement with the aboriginal community outside the university, which is rewarding and means we are not in ivory-tower isolation,” said Fran Hunt-Jinnouchi, Kwagiulth and Gusgimukw First Nations, director of the office. “I’m very proud of our indigenous programs.”

First Peoples House

The First Peoples House, which is located in the geographic center of campus, opened its doors in August 2009. The building is both traditional and modern – with one foot in the past and one in the future. It is a reflection of a Coast Salish longhouse and is aligned with the cardinal points with the entrance facing east.

In addition to the ceremonial hall, the house offers classrooms, offices, a carving tent, a reading room and a study area. The building is environmentally sustainable and is expected to gain gold status under the LEED program (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). It features a planted roof with wildflowers, a storm retention pond, displacement ventilation and waterless toilets. One of the only wood structures on campus, it was designed by architect Alfred Waugh, who is part Chipewyan.

Aboriginal artwork is an integral component of the House. Two welcome posts in cedar depicting a traditional Coast Salish man with child and a mother with baby enhance the entrance. Large entry doors display killer whales, symbols of power. Eight tall colorful panels decorate the walls of the ceremonial hall. Indigenous paintings hang on walls throughout the building, and outside the sculpture of a giant whale tail emerges from the pond.

Undergraduate Programs

Professor Christine O’Bonsawin, Abenaki First Nation and director of Indigenous Studies, came to the University of Victoria because, “I was completely blown away by the strong indigenous presence here.” She said about 30 undergraduate courses with significant indigenous content are offered, and the number continues to grow. Many of the courses are in education, social work and nursing. The Faculty of Law is recognized as a Canadian leader in indigenous legal education. “We are indigenizing the curriculum, so that Native culture and history is presented to all students.”

As students near graduation, they can participate in an Indigenous Student Career Transition program, where they receive advice on job hunting, interviews, preparing resumes and ways of re-integrating and giving back to their communities.

Post-graduate Studies and Research

Several faculties offer post-graduate studies and conduct research. About 15 courses with significant indigenous content are offered at the post-graduate level. Research is conducted in a wide range of indigenous topics, including ethnobotany, health, governance, and preservation and revitalization of language.

The Centre for Aboriginal Health Research was created in 2008 and is dedicated to promoting and engaging in health research in partnership with aboriginal peoples to improve their health.

The “School” of Indigenous Governance plays an important role. Professor Jeff Corntassel, Cherokee Nation and the acting head, said he was drawn here because no other group in the world has such a commitment and vision to helping indigenous people regain a proper place in society. There are 37 post-graduate students and entry is very competitive. “Our standards are high, and our courses are like a boot-camp in decolonization.”