Ronald Joseph Stevens says the new Aboriginal Resource Centre is a home away from home on campus for aboriginal students.
“I think this was the start of something huge. If you look at places like St.FX or UNB, they don’t have anything close to this for aboriginal students,” the First Nations St. Thomas University student said about the centre that officially opened at STU last week.
The centre was in the planning stages for two years. The Native Student Lounge was on the first floor of Sir James Dunn Hall, in a room roughly a quarter of the new centre. This fall, they renovated the new the second-floor space, which now has a full kitchen.
Yet, not everyone is happy with the opening. D’Arcy Vermette, native studies professor, is opposed to the Aboriginal Resource Centre. He sent out flyers asking people to boycott the opening.
“The Native Student Council cannot meet in the Centre since a) their property was not relocated to that space and b) such meetings would be under the watchful eye of STU officials. Democratic, student-driven advocacy and governance has been destroyed and replaced with paternalistic management of student interests,” the flyer says.
He says the centre has been built on the “ashes of the Native Student Council.” He thinks it only represents aboriginal interests in a limited way.
Despite his opposition, the centre was packed at the opening. Stevens says the centre is well used, and the vast majority of aboriginal students are pleased with the upgrade.
“It’s not the Native Student Council lounge, it’s the Native Students lounge. There’s a difference,” Jeffrey Carleton, STU’s communication director, said.
Carleton says at least two years ago the president of the Native Student Council approached STU’s president at the time, Dennis Cochrane, about finding a new space. Members from STU visited a university in British Columbia that had tremendous success in Aboriginal enrolment rates and success rates.
STU received money to go towards the centre and the elder-in-residence, Miigam’agan, from the provincial government, the Harrison McCain Foundation, and TD Bank.
Carleton says the administration made it clear they wanted an expanded Native Students lounge.
“I don’t think anybody can say they weren’t aware of what the plans were when the Native Student Council were part of the groups that originally brought the initiative to the administration’s attention.”
Chris George is the director of aboriginal education initiatives at STU. George works with approximately 20 students and says 15 come in every day. He says they see the centre as a resource.
“Our main hope was to create a climate of success. What do I hear from students, is that it’s a place where they can interact. It’s a little version of our cafeteria. There’s a lot of sharing of ideas, a lot of study groups.”
Post-secondary Education Minister Danny Soucy says the province was eager to get involved with the centre.
“I think it’s important that everyone in the province has the opportunity to get a good education. Whatever the barrier is we should try to do what we can to make sure we take that barrier down,” Soucy said.
George travels around the province to First Nations communities, enticing aboriginals to attend post-secondary education, especially at STU. Soucy hopes other universities will follow suit with their own resources for aboriginal students.
“Because of this centre it may attract some students who never would have come to a post-secondary institution. It’s going to help enrolment but it’s also going to help to change the way cultures fit together,” Soucy said.