If there is a metaphor for deconstructing colonialism and reconstructing Indigeneity at Western, it would be in this place.
Inside and out, the new Indigenous Learning Space will be infused with meaning: the welcome area, with greetings carved in scores of Indigenous languages on a wall meant to resemble a palisade where Haudenosaunee peoples would gather in community; the smoked glass etched with thunderbirds and turtles.
And the garden, its stories as rich as the soil itself, that cascades down towards a lower-level sacred fire.
The building, that once housed the Faculty of Education’s library, has been stripped to its bare walls and is scheduled to re-open next summer with a brand-new purpose.
And the vision is taking shape.
“It is more than a building; it’s a home. A home for our Indigenous students, for our staff, our faculty,” said Paula Cornelius-Hedgepeth, community relations and space co-ordinator with the Office of Indigenous Initiatives.
“It’s going to be a central hub of activity for so many different things – for us to come together and gather and celebrate our culture, our Indigeneity, our identity, our languages – and to share it too with main campus, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, who would like to come and share this experience with us.”
The new Indigenous Learning Space reflects decolonization, yes, and much more, said lead design architect Wanda Dalla Costa, founder of the Tawaw Architecture Collective and Canada’s first Indigenous woman to practise architecture in Canada. The on-site architecture partner is Tillman Ruth Robinson Architects.
“It’s part of belonging, welcoming. It’s an answer to the question of, how does a university make you feel welcome, like you are not in this foreign space?” said Dalla Costa, who is also an architecture professor at Arizona State University.
Dalla Costa, Cornelius-Hedgepeth and project designer Tierra Miller led a Sept. 29 webinar, hosted by London Public Library, on the principles and vision for developing this Indigenous-focused home-away-from-home.
For Dalla Costa, the most exciting element of the new space is a terraced medicine garden that melds interior and exterior; steps to understanding, alongside a place for gathering and smudging ceremonies in a living room beside a sacred fire.
This “storied landscape” is integral to the meaning of the space, Dalla Costa said. Consultations with elders and others in the community reinforced the kin relationship Indigenous people have with the land and its inhabitants.
She said Indigenous ways of knowing stem from a holistic worldview: contemporaneous sources such as books; revealed knowledge through ceremonial practice; empirical knowledge derived from the land; and traditional knowledge that comes from storytelling.
“When you look at the garden, it’s where these four knowledges can live. It’s about disrupting pedagogy,” Dalla Costa said.
Back inside, there will be classrooms, offices and a state-of-the-art media centre for interviews, storytelling and podcasts, Cornelius-Hedgepeth said.
The circular, central space on the main level will have moveable furniture to accommodate seating or large gatherings for socials or Round Dances. Above that, the mezzanine will be a quiet space where students can study, relax or socialize.
Tying it all together will be the massive, domed roof – shaped like a turtle’s shell depicting Turtle Island, the traditional Indigenous name of North America.
And so a space originally built to be a library of books about teaching will itself become a living repository of story, knowledge and Indigenous teachings.
“There are so many people working with us to make sure that this space is exactly what our community has envisioned,” said Cornelius-Hedgepeth, noting in particular the contributions of the community, Western administration, the Centre for Teaching and Learning, and Western Technology Services.
“One of the mandates of the strategic plan is to help Western decolonize and to Indigenize this campus, and make space for Indigenous ways of being and knowing,” Cornelius-Hedgepeth said. “We’re working to get Western to a place where reconciliation is at the forefront and I think this is one big step towards helping achieve that.”
Western will observe the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation with a number of events, remembrances and ceremonies. A detailed guide to events is here.
The Western community is also encouraged to wear orange shirts to honour Indigenous lives and remember their commitment to reconciliation. Check out this list for 12 things you can do right now to advance truth and reconciliation.
To learn more about what Western has to offer Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, visit the Office of Indigenous Initiatives; and for more Western-related Indigenous profiles, news, events and research, visit Western News.