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It’s official. Camosun’s newest building – resembling a huge cedar hat and perched on top of the slope overlooking Lansdowne Road – has been named Na’tsa’maht. This Salish phrase, announced at the grand opening ceremony on April 19, means unity or working together as one.

"Na’tsa’maht is a physical manifestation of the philosophy, beliefs, and mission of the Aboriginal Education & Community Connections (AECC) department," says Stephen Parkhill, board member of Camosun’s Board of Governors. "People will meet and engage as diverse communities."

The event drew nearly 300 people including: numerous Aboriginal Elders; Ida Chong, MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head, First Nations drummers and dancers; Camosun officials, staff and students; and a row of rapt preschoolers.

"This beautiful gathering place was built as a culturally welcoming building reflecting the character, community, and traditions of the Aboriginal people," says Kathryn Laurin, president of Camosun. "It will help us to support Aboriginal students, welcome the community, and house events that will strengthen ties between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities of Camosun College."

Na’tsa’maht is located very close to the Wilna Thomas Cultural Centre, and will provide a welcoming location for Camosun's Indigenous programs to host circle seminars and Elders' teachings.

Na’tsa’maht is showing the Aboriginal student you are welcome here, you will succeed here, you belong here," says Chong.

A big dream

"We’ve dreamed of a place like this for many years. I can only imagine the times of joy and the times of learning that are going to happen in this house," says Janice Simcoe, Chair of the AECC department.

"I saw the building forming in my mind," says Lekwungen Elder Butch Dick. While attending Camosun's annual Camas Harvest and Pit Cook a couple of years ago, he envisioned an arbour-like structure and handed a sketch to Janice Simcoe, saying: "Here’s your new building." He never expected to see it materialize.

However, funding from the BC Ministry of Advanced Education gave life to the dream. "Our government’s funding of this gathering place ensures students have the support and environment they need. We know that when we support Aboriginal students in post-secondary, they are more likely to complete their studies and move on to good jobs to support themselves and their families," says Naomi Yamamoto, Minister of Advanced Education. Camosun is one of 27 post-secondary institutions benefiting from 13.6-million investment, choosing to spend their full $610,400 on the Na’tsa’maht building.

The conical and open-sided design was inspired by traditional Coast Salish building styles. Using 18 huge cedar logs to support the structure, Brad Shuya Architect Inc. prepared drawings from Mr. Dick’s sketches and Canpro Construction Ltd. started construction in June of 2010. Within the circular structure, a gas-powered fire, surrounded by stones, is centered in a broad expanse of floor. Three tiers of wooden benches look in from the sides offering circular seating for a couple hundred people. Outside, an accompanying Indigenous plant garden is taking root.

Heart for the community

"The house is sacred. It is a place where community values come first," says John Boraas, Director of AECC.

Aboriginal dances accompanied two pieces by the Unity Drummers. In a "cleansing" dance, a dozen dancers dressed in brightly-coloured capes, used cedar boughs to symbolically sweep the floor in preparation for the building’s purpose. In the second dance, composed specifically for the purpose by Brad Dick, the dancers turned in the direction of their heart as they entered the huge doorway, before continuing to flow through the building.

"This turning in the direction of the heart is symbolic of this house being built. You have to teach from the heart," says Nella Nelson, chair of Camosun’s Aboriginal Advisory Council. "What is education without love? Teach from a place of love and it transforms people. This building is a bridge to all community."

Butch Dick also suggested the name of the new building. "It does pay to dream big. Dreams do become realities."

20 years and growing

Camosun College campuses are located on land that is the traditional territory of the Lekwungen, Esquimalt, and Saanich peoples, and an area where the Lekwungen nation cultivated and maintained the camas bulb as a core part of their food and trade needs for centuries. Currently, Camosun enrols 900 Aboriginal students, from over 50 Nations including Métis and Inuit. This year, the department of AECC celebrates its 20th anniversary.

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Last updated: April 21, 2011 2:18 pm

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