The University of Saskatchewan’s main campus is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis.

Bids roll in for Gordon Oakes-Red Bear aboriginal student centre

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After nearly two decades of talks of an aboriginal student centre on campus, the university now has plans to have shovels in the ground in 2013. At least one company has bid on the $15-million project, which was designed by famed architect Douglas Cardinal.

Construction firms have begun bidding on the Gordon Oakes-Red Bear Student Centre and crews are expected to arrive on campus and start work once the snow melts.

“We have already received more than one response and we continue to be optimistic that the current design will be feasible within the budget we have allowed,” Ilene Busch-Vishniac, president of the University of Saskatchewan, said at the University Council meeting on Nov. 15.

The university will accept bids for the $15-million project until the end of December.

“The Gordon Oakes-Red Bear centre is intended to enhance visibility of First Nations and Métis students on our campus, to promote greater cultural understanding throughout our community and to provide a focal point for all of our aboriginal initiatives.”

The student centre will be built between the Arts Tower and the Murray Library, where there are currently about a dozen large elm trees.

In April, a petition was circulated to have the university rethink its decision to uproot the trees and have the centre built somewhere else on campus. Ultimately the location was not changed. Construction is expected to begin in the new year.

“In regards to breaking sod, obviously it will not be happening this calendar year. It will likely break in 2013, hopefully when everything starts to thaw,” U of S Students’ Union President Jared Brown said.

Brown, the first aboriginal student to serve as USSU president in the organization’s 105-year history, says the centre will help the university attract more students and help the university retain aboriginal students for three- and four-year programs.

In 2012, first- to second-year retention rates among aboriginal students at the U of S were only 58 per cent, compared to a university average rate of 79 per cent.

“A centre like this is not going to fix all the problems but it’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Brown said of the low rate of aboriginal students who continue on at the university following their first year of studies.

“Hopefully this will help mitigate that culture shock and at the same time build a community for those people who are having issues with the academic portion. [Hopefully] they can find that help there.”

The centre will also provide a place where students can hold cultural ceremonies, like sweats and smudging. Currently, the Aboriginal Students’ Centre, located across from the bookstore, does not have proper ventilation to accommodate the ceremonies.

“The ceremonies are for everybody. Anyone can participate. That’s the beauty of this centre: It’s not an aboriginal centre, it’s actually a student centre,” Brown said.

The building was designed by Douglas Cardinal, an architect known for designing the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que., the First Nations University of Canada in Regina and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

“The university is setting a precedent for other universities by going forward and this is a major statement. Making that statement is not only good locally, but also nationally and globally for aboriginal and indigenous students, because it shows a commitment. The assumption is that more people will be coming here,” Brown said.

With files from Daryl Hofmann.

Photo: U of S/Flickr

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