By Jeff Labine
THE CHRONICLE-JOURNAL
Published: July 17, 2016

The province is spending $1 million to help get a long-awaited indigenous centre at Lakehead University shovel ready.

The money from Ontario and Lakehead, which is contributing between $2 million and $2,500,000, will go towards the engineering and concept design work for the proposed Gichi Kendaasiwin Centre. Once that is complete, the next step will be to secure funding to actually construct the centre. The cost is estimated to be around $30 million.

The new centre is intended to act as a hub for the university’s indigenous students and the broader community. The centre will include classrooms, a performance area and an enclosed bridge that will connect the former residence near Lake Tamblyn to the main campus building.

Elder Isabelle Mercier, who spoke at a news conference about the centre at the Thunder Bay campus on Friday, said the announcement has been a long time coming.

“It’s exciting, it is emotional,” she said. “I feel really honoured to be a part of finally breaking the ground for something that so many people worked for over such a long period of time.”

Mercier explained the goal of the centre was to create a safe place for students to come and learn. She said the centre, which includes designs reflecting First Nations culture and traditions, will be a place where students can go and be comfortable and welcomed at all times.

“You have no idea how many people have worked for this because the students are lonely,” she said. “This is one huge place. If we can get them all together in one building where the services are, where they are comfortable, it’ll be like coming home.”

Brian Stevenson, president of Lakehead University, said the centre will be able to house several hundred students and will be open to all students. He explained that the residence, which is the oldest on campus, couldn’t be renovated so it will instead be knocked down to make way for the new centre.

He said since 2010, it has been their main capital project with the province, but they are in talks with the federal government as well. Although there are no federal programs available for the centre at the moment, Stevenson remained hopeful that something could change in the future.

Lakehead has between 1,100 to 1,200 indigenous students out of a student population of 8,000. Stevenson believes this makes Lakehead’s indigenous student population one of the largest in Canada.

“I think over the next few years, we hope to grow more and more,” he said. “We certainly have space around (the centre to expand) but first of all, we have to make sure the current design we have that we have enough money for that. This is very important, particularly for students from Northern communities that when they arrive they need culturally sensitive space, a safe space where they can be with elders and other students.”

Stevenson didn’t have a solid timeline for when he wanted the centre up and running but added he would like to see it complete in the near future.

Michael Gravelle, minister of Northern Development and Mines, believes it is the time for the project to get underway and mentioned that the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund board members were enthusiastic about the project.

“This is about the vision for the future,” Gravelle added. “What’s crucial is to position it so it can be shovel ready. Today was a special day for me to be here and to make that announcement on behalf of Ontario and the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund.”