BY BILL PHILLIPS
Another new building will soon be going up in Prince George.
Construction is now officially underway on a new student housing building for Indigenous students at the College of New Caledonia. Advanced Education Minister Melanie Mark was joined by CNC president Henry Reiser, Lheidli T’enneh Chief Clayton Pountney, student Damon Robinson, and Mayor Lyn Hall for the official ground-breaking ceremony Friday.
“It’s reconciliation in action,” said Mark of why Indigenous housing for students is important. “Part of the calls to action with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is about creating greater opportunities for students,” she said. “The way you do that is to create a safe environment, a culturally appropriate environment.”
The province is providing $2.6 million for the new facility that will provide 12 furnished student rooms, a suite for an elder who will provide student support, a shared kitchen, living area, washrooms and laundry facilities, as well as a designated area for cultural practices, teachings and activities.
Mark said the housing is “purpose-built,” and is unique in that it was a called for by the local housing advisory committee. It’s also been talked about at CNC since the 1990s. When asked what tipped the scales in favour of finally building the facility, Mark was blunt.
“A new NDP government,” she said. “When I took the file there were 130 student homes invested in in the 16 years before I became the minister, now there are almost 2,000 student homes invested in this province because we’ve changed the rules to allow universities, colleges, and institutes to build student housing.”
The 440 square-metre (4,735 square-foot) building is located at the college’s Prince George campus. The building for first-year Indigenous students is being built next to existing student housing to help ensure students can easily participate in campus life.
“For Indigenous students, some of them are travelling from hundreds of miles away to get to CNC,” she said. “The first step was to apply, the second was to get accepted, then they have to make the journey here. It’s a big deal to land on the campus and not know where to go to get that support.”
Student, editor-in-chief of the Confluence, and Gitanmaax native Damon Robinson can attest to that. An honours student, with bursaries in hand, Robinson, like many students, found it difficult when first arrived at CNC.
“It wasn’t easy leaving home, leaving the mountains, the people,” he said. “It was a big transition leaving Hazelton and coming to Prince George. I was an emotional mess my first day here. And with the scope of how large college is, I was terrified.”
He said even though he was a good student and had a supportive family, he wasn’t prepared for the day he arrived in Prince George.
“I didn’t realize how important it was to be surrounded by my culture,” he said. “I took it for granted because that part of me stayed in Hazelton when I came here. It was very difficult.”
He said he was at the brink of dropping out.
He went to the Aboriginal Resource Centre at CNC and found what he was looking for.
“I found that culture, that support system, people who have similar stories to me and that understand what it is to be an Indigenous student,” he said. “My hope with this aboriginal housing project is that it develops a community and gives students, like me, an opportunity to not have to go without that presence of being Indigenous.”
The residence will be built to ensure it is energy efficient and supportive of the Province’s long-term climate strategy, the CleanBC plan. Occupancy is expected by spring 2020.
“A safe, welcoming and supportive home gives Indigenous students the foundation for continued success,” said Pountney. “We’ve worked closely with our Elders and community members to get to the start of construction and look forward to the completion of the new building.”
Approximately 20 per cent of the student population at the College of New Caledonia is Indigenous, many from remote parts of northern British Columbia. The College of New Caledonia serves 21 First Nations communities.
“This project is a milestone achieved at CNC through collaboration and efforts spanning more than a decade,” said Reiser. “Many Aboriginal students arrive from small, rural and remote communities and have no experience securing rentals, utilities and community services. Having culturally supportive housing with Elder support will allow students to focus immediately on their studies, thus, greatly enhancing their ability to reach their education goals.”
Mayor Lyn Hall called the ground-breaking as a “big deal.”
“It is so vitally important,” he said. “It becomes a real need in the community to facilitate opportunity for students, not necessarily in Prince George, but outside the community … It expands cultural opportunities on campus, it is one more step in the move towards reconciliation, but the piece that stands out for me is that housing represents a community focus.”