Science student Kerri Hansen fought back tears as she gazed at the aboriginal artwork surrounding her at the College of New Caledonia's Gathering Place.
Formerly known as the CNC Atrium, the sky-lit compound has been transformed into a meeting place for students, faculty and college visitors where they can celebrate the art, history and traditions of the people who first walked the land now covered by the Prince George campus.
On one side of the room is a wall of petroglyphs that recreate the rock carvings that tell centuries-old stories of native people. Next to that is a birch bark canoe of the type once used to navigate the ancient highway waters of the Nechako and Fraser rivers. Above the room, suspended from the ceiling are 21 geese in landing formation, symbolic of the 21 First Nations of north central B.C. And in showcases built into the wall, carved wood moccasins and birch bark baskets from some of the region's most talented artists are featured.
Thursday's event to officially open the CNC Gathering Place gave Hansen, a 31-year-old aspiring dental hygienist from Steellat'en First Nation in Fraser Lake, a sense of belonging.
"When I see all this it makes me want to cry, actually," said Hansen. "It is our history and it makes me happy to have the history in here.
"Sometimes when you come to a new place it's a bit scary and the art here makes it more welcoming and makes you feel more at home. These are all things that don't get acknowledged sometimes so it's wonderful to have it in such an open space where everyone can enjoy it."
Chantel Quock, 20, is in her third year of science studies at CNC targeting a career as a geologist. Like Hansen, her chemistry lab partner, Quock already frequents CNC's Aboriginal Resource Centre to provide a taste of home life, and Thursday's ceremony gave Hansen, a member of the Tahltan First Nation in Telegraph Creek, another reason to celebrate her aboriginal heritage.
"I love it here, it's going to make aboriginal students feel welcome," said Quock. "It reflects where they're from, especially the Carrier Nation. It makes me want to be at home. This is also great for non-aboriginals to get acquainted with all the arts and what they mean and where they came from, just to be familiar with our culture and our beliefs."
Supported by government grants and partnerships made with First Nations and Metis community groups, B.C. postsecondary schools in recent years have made significant adjustments in program development and course delivery to provide more relevant training for aboriginal students and the effects have been noticeable. Monty Palmantier, co-chair of the Burns Lake -based Yinka Dene Council, says the CNC Gathering Place will only encourage that trend.
"These institutions really become a home away from home for our students and for it to be reflective of the Lheidli T'enneh culture, the folks whose ground this college sits on, really makes for a welcoming place," said Palmantier. "Oftentimes we only look back on history as 1867, but we have 10,000 years-plus of history with each student who comes through these doors. For that to be acknowledged front and centre, I don't think a stronger statement can be made."
The project is the result of a $600,000 provincial investment given to CNC to encourage more aboriginal students to enrol in college programs. CNC opened a similar public space in 2009 at its Fort St. James campus. Aboriginals make up 14 per cent of the student population at the Prince George campus.
"It's really exciting because the college is now trying to be more inclusive of this population in this region," said Marlene Erickson, CNC's senior policy advisor and Aboriginal Resource Centre manager.
Erickson says initiatives like the Gathering Place are key in helping repair the generational wounds left by the forced relocations, forced loss of culture, and abuse suffered decades ago by aboriginal students when they attended residential schools.
"Education has had a really tragic history with our people and so education overall, whatever system we walk into, is a struggle, and there are a lot of negative emotions and memories attached to that," said Erickson. "When students can see their cultures reflected in education it just makes it a shift that makes it that much more of an inclusive place."