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Community ᐄᐦᑖᐧᐃᓐ

Algonquin College vastly expands Indigenous Centre offerings

BY Ben Powless Mar 2, 2023

Ottawa’s Algonquin College is expanding the role of its Mamidosewin Centre for Indigenous students.

Mamidosewin Centre Manager Eric Johnston said the college is investing in the centre to make it akin to a “home room” for Indigenous students on campus. 

The centre already has a student lounge which includes TVs and video games, a kitchenette, a computer lab, fax and phone services, access to smudging and medicines, and an emergency food bank. But it will soon offer more services, such as cultural education. 

The centre’s focus will soon include lectures about Indigenous history, Johnston said, “What really took place in residential schools, how is the Indian Act policy of assimilation attached to all that? There’s quite a bit of historical perspective that Mamidosewin also tries to play a fostering role in.”

The goal is to provide students a better sense of where they come from, the history of their nations, and how they can assist their communities. To that end, the college is turning the existing one-year Native Studies curriculum into a two-year program.

Johnston said many Indigenous students choose programs such as construction, business administration, policing, and social work. However, he said there’s room for students who don’t yet know what they want to study, and who may need assistance with their math or writing skills in the meantime.

Johnston studied legal administration and colonial history after growing up on the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation in Ontario. From there, he worked in California before being hired at the University of Toronto’s Indigenous Centre. He moved to Algonquin College last year.

For students living in a city environment for the first time, the centre supports them with a student residence, meals and urban orientation activities. However, Johnston said there are still housing issues. 

“The colleges are aware that residence is a rising challenge, no matter where you come from,” he said. “Getting a place at the residences is a real competitive kind of environment.” 

Proposals to deal with the issue included reserving up to 60 of the 450 available residence spaces for Indigenous students, or that the college purchase a hotel and convert it into an Indigenous residence. 

Johnston encourages students coming from the same community to rent apartments together. “It used to be you could look for residence in August or July, but now you have to start looking in May and April to scout out possibilities and make sure that a student has a good situation they’re dropping into,” he said.

This has been helped by the centre’s new relationship with the Registrar’s Office, which provides a list of incoming students and their communities, allowing the centre to contact students directly. 

The centre then informs students about events, workshops, academic coaching, peer tutoring and bursary opportunities. Johnston hopes to organize meetups within study programs, so that all Indigenous students studying construction, for instance, could get to know each other. 

The centre helps students complete bursary applications, including the emergency bursary fund or Indigenous-specific bursaries, like Indspire. This helps in cases when communities cannot fully fund students, which impacts their ability to pay for things like food and rent.

Other events that the centre organizes includes marking National Truth and Reconciliation Day in September and a round dance in March. They’re also working to bring in big drum teachings from the Lake of the Woods area to “strengthen the Indigenous identity and worldview in the educational institution,” Johnston explained. 

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.