'Students know it as a safe place - a haven where there is help for anything'
The moment you walk through the doors to the Gathering Place, everything seems to change: the light softens, the noise of the day fades away, and you are most likely greeted by a friendly face.
Caroline Chartier is the Aboriginal Transitions Planner at the Salmon Arm campus, and OC Life caught up with her to get the scoop on what makes the Gathering Place so special.
Q: What was intent behind the Gathering Place when it was created?
A: To provide a space for Aboriginal students that is in keeping with the rest of the province’s post-secondary institutions. A place where Aboriginal students can make the transition to post-secondary school, while still being able to maintain and keep in touch with their culture, communities, and events.
It is a place that is designed specifically to provide services to Aboriginal students and yet welcomes all students and guests from the community. This inviting concept encourages learning about cross cultural respect.
Q: What kind of events do you hold in the Gathering Place?
A: There are at least 12 events per year, some with live music and dancing. Each event involves food from a variety of sources, but the one constant at all events is provision of food sponsored by Aboriginal Services.
Some examples of events are: Pre-Powwow Etiquette, Celebrate Student Success, Old-Fashioned Out-door Picnic, Bannock Making Contest, Louis Riel Day, Multi-Cultural Day, Volunteer Appreciation Day, and then we have at least one Bannock Tacos Fundraiser per semester. The funds raised go directly to the cafeteria where students in need, all students, can access the fund for the purchase of breakfast or lunch or coffee. The food for the fundraiser is fully sponsored by Aboriginal Services and the students need not repay. It is all run on the honour system and, after many years, has not been abused.
We sometimes have co-hosted events, namely, the annual Candle Light Vigil which is an event meant to commemorate the 1989 Ecole Polytechnique Montreal Massacre and the Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls. This is a community event originally started by the SAFE Society and, for the last 10 years, Aboriginal Services has worked together with the OC Students’ Union in Salmon Arm and SAFE to host the event in the Gathering Place. It is held on or just before Dec. 6.
Q: Why does the Gathering Place have a circle shape?
A: The circle shape reflects the many teachings of Aboriginal peoples and is considered sacred. The world is seen in the shape of a circle with four directions and all of life’s cycles are in this circle. Depending on the territory and band teachings, different colours and animals as well as plants are attributed to each of the different directions. Many wonderful stories about the circle abound and are sometimes shared by visiting storytellers and Elders.
Q: What is inscribed on the floor of the Gathering Place?
A: When the Gathering Place was designed, all local bands, the Métis and the community, as well as OC faculty, staff and students were invited to participate in the design of the building. Regular meetings were held and interest from all sides was keen. The combination of ideas married to make one of the most beautiful spaces anywhere. Each local band and the Métis were encouraged to provide a design feature significant to their territory, band or Métis. The inscriptions on the floor were graciously contributed by the Secwepemc Nation. Each has its own story. Stories are meant to be shared by storytellers and Elders. It is a sacred right.
Q: What other features can be found in the Gathering Place, that not many people know about?
A: All of the artwork has been donated by community members, students, staff and guests. Each piece has a special story and, at some point, we will have a legend with each piece.
The Gathering Place was an opportunity offered by the Ministry of Advanced Education and the proposal was created by our now-Director of Student Support Services James Coble. James’ proposal was approved and so because of that extra effort, Salmon Arm campus gained mightily. At the time the proposal was written, we had few Indigenous students. A handful, by today’s comparison. This space has created a welcome and reason to be here. We have made huge strides in connection to the Secwepemc Territory, the relationship with Okanagan College and the community.
Q: In your view, what makes the Gathering Place special?
What makes the Gathering Place special is its warmth and welcoming ambiance. Right from the sign over the door that reads: “All Welcome.” That is a sentiment proffered with a full-heart.
Students bring their families and friends to events; community members know they are welcome and often stop by to pick up the latest events brochure so they can plan what to make for the next potluck. Maybe stop for a cup of tea and chat with the students.
Many of the guests ultimately become students, or tutors for students. Some bring their natural but well-honed musical talents and they entertain at events such as Multi-Cultural Day or Louis Riel Day when the fiddles and guitars come out. We have an awesome local pianist.
Métis Regional Senator John Sayers has been to every single Louis Riel Day and he is a storyteller with heart. He is very proud of his heritage and, besides the stories, he offers a wide range of Métis artwork, carvings and antiques. Elementary school children are brought to Louis Riel Day and the food, the music and stories are all integrated into their social studies classes; usually grades 4 to 6. Sometimes we have over 200 guests and we share the Student Lounge and Cafeteria to accommodate the crowd. It is even more amazing when you see OC staff and faculty take their break to help serve the people. Truly a proud moment and so enjoyed by the students.
Q: Why do students come to the Gathering Place?
A: I would like to say, too, that students know it as a safe place. A haven where there is help for anything from first aid, to food for a hypoglycemic, or a quiet place to cry, or study, eat lunch, socialize, be accepted.
It is a space that provides a much-needed service, so although it is a very beautiful space, it must be used for the purpose which the Ministry of Advanced Education mandated, and we have done this.
Former students often visit to say hello and to recall stories of challenges and barriers and finding refuge in this safe and beautiful space. It is a joy to be there, to work there and to keep it clean and respected and to have been a part of its growth.
As a part of Okanagan College’s commitment to enhancing the participation of Aboriginal learners, the College provides Aboriginal support services at each of the four campuses.
Our goal is to provide culturally relevant support including:
- Visiting Elders
- Cultural and academic workshops
- Aboriginal peer mentors
- Aboriginal Student Centres
- Aboriginal awards, scholarships and bursary information
- Assistance with band funding applications
- Providing personalized daily supports
- Computer access
Indigenization at OC
Okanagan College leadership and broader College community are committed to working with, and learning from, the Indigenous community.
Okanagan College created the Indigenization Task Force to gather input on the direction towards our Indigenization planning and activities. The task force consists of faculty and staff from various departments and all campuses.