Western University in London, Ont., has unveiled a new Indigenous Learning Space in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings and Calls to Action.
Officially announced as the Wampum Learning Lodge in a naming ceremony on Monday, officials said the space is dedicated to Indigenous teaching and learning and will be “a home-place” for Indigenous students as well as Indigenous initiatives at Western, bringing “Indigenous ways of being and knowing to campus.”
“Through community engagement, it was determined that a space like this was missing at Western,” explained Paula Cornelius-Hedgepath, community relations and space coordinator of the Wampum Learning Lodge.
The space is located in the former library of the John G. Althouse Building at the Faculty of Education, known for its distinctive round shape.
The retrofitted space was designed by Wanda Dalla Costa of Saddle Lake First Nation, Canada’s first female Indigenous architect.
The space incorporates artistic designs that “reflect a connection with the earth, nature, the equinox and the four cardinal points which hold great significance in many Indigenous worldviews.” Other forms of Indigenous artwork and language are also featured throughout the building.
Cornelius-Hedgepath said that the space also features a medicine garden which is dedicated to “revitalizing Indigenous agriculture and medicinal space,” as well as an outdoor ceremonial section that is “sheltered by an arbor” which is inspired by a traditional Haudenosaunee lacrosse stick basket.
“This space is touchstone for our Indigenous community and our students,” she said. “A place for them to come and gather for cultural reclamation, for programming and events that all have to do with reconciliation and relationship building.”
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President Alan Shepard noted the opening of the Wampum Learning Lodge is an historic moment for the Indigenous community and for Western.
“This important addition to our campus is the most visible expression of Western’s commitment to advancing reconciliation with Indigenous communities and signals our desire to shape a better future founded on mutual respect, harmony and learning,” he said in a statement. “We are grateful for the many Indigenous colleagues, students and community members who guided the creation of this culturally significant space.”
In 2016, Western drafted its first Indigenous Strategic Plan which aims to “elevate Indigenous voices and agency to engage all faculty, staff, students and communities in advancing excellence in Indigenous research, education and campus life.”
In 2018, talks began in developing and establishing the newly unveiled Indigenous Learning Space. Cornelius-Hedgepath said that the official opening was originally scheduled to happen in 2020.
“When COVID hit, that kind of brought things to a screeching halt,” she explained. “So, it’s been slow moving through COVID, (but) we’re just very happy to finally be at the point where we’re at.”
Cornelius-Hedgepath said that despite development setbacks caused by the pandemic, the response from the community has been nothing short of supportive so far.
“The response has been amazing, and everybody is so excited to be using this space,” she said. “I’ve seen this space transform, and I know it’s beautiful, but to see it through somebody else’s eyes where this is their first time seeing it, it gives me a great deal of satisfaction and happiness.”
Cornelius-Hedgepath added that this space “symbolizes a great learning opportunity” and her vision for its future focuses on cultural reclamation.
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“So, the programming that we are planning to put out is a lot about cultural reclamation, language revitalization, food security, food sovereignty. All of those pieces that we were forced to put down due to colonization, we want to provide programming an opportunity for our students in our communities to pick those back up,” she said.
“The way that I see Western and the City of London contributing to that is through the resources that they have available,” Cornelius-Hedgepath added, using the example of the partnership between Western’s office of Indigenous initiatives and agriculture and Agri Foods Canada to a white corn revitalization farm in community.
“Being able to take those resources and those opportunities and apply them to cultural reclamation within Indigenous communities is really important to me,” she continued. “That’s the type of work that I hope to see in the future as this space continues to grow.”
“The Wampum Learning Lodge offers a safe space for Indigenous Peoples and allies at Western and beyond,” said Christy Bressette, vice-provost and associate vice-president (Indigenous Initiatives). “A place for all of us to share our gifts and where we can all learn to see the world from a variety of perspectives.”
According to University officials, the Wampum Learning Lodge is available for booking to anyone in the London area who wish to host events “relevant to Indigenous communities or that have Indigenous themes in mind. Large academic gathering will also be available to the wider community.
In June 2023, the space will also serve as the “central hub” for the Universities Canada’s Building Reconciliation Forum, a national three-day event that will bring academics and other stakeholders together in discussing reconciliation in universities across the country.
“It’s providing the opportunity for everybody to learn, whether you’re Indigenous or not,” Cornelius-Hedgepath added. “We want to be able to share with everybody here at Western and within London.”