The three-story mural inside DARE District. The mural is embedded with many indigenous symbols which was decided by students and Elders in the indigenous community. It was recently completed by indigenous graffiti artists, Shalak Attack and Bruno Smoky. Photo credit: Jaden Lee-Lincoln

After much anticipation, the college’s brand new DARE District is finally open for students and faculty members to use.

At first glance, visitors are amazed by the sunlight let in by its large windows, the vibrant green walls and its clean and contemporary design.

But what many students and staff may not be aware of is the indigenous cultural influences embedded throughout the entire building.

It was decided about three years ago that the new infrastructure would focus on indigenous entrepreneurship, when the now-executive director of truth, reconciliation and indigenization Ron Deganadus McLester was recruited.

McLester recalls the time he was approached by Algonquin president Cheryl Jensen. She had told him “we want to embed indigenous ways of knowing into the fabric of the institution.” Going beyond just funding indigenous student support services, the president wanted indigenous culture and history to extend to other aspects of the college.

So McLester did what he calls a meaningful engagement process with indigenous communities around the world to collect information on what indigenous cultural aspects DARE should include. As a result, four main elements are in the process of being built.

The third floor of the library will have what acts as a speaker’s corner for spreading indigenous knowledge. McLester points out that many people go to libraries to seek information through books or computer databases, but in the indigenous community, knowledge is passed on through stories told by Elders.

“You can imagine 25 to 30 students sitting around the space, it’s snowing outside and there’s an Elder talking about, say, creation stories. In that way, we are preserving and sharing indigenous knowledge in this library setting,” said McLester.

The floor below that will include the Institute of Indigenization. It will pass on indigenous knowledge in a modern context. The institution will also focus on the concept of indigenous entrepreneurship, according to McLester.

Outside of the building will be a courtyard that has been funded largely by the Students’ Association who donated $1 million towards DARE.

“It’s been a priority of the SA to help fund the Truth and Reconciliation Action Plan and we really wanted to hone the idea of creating spaces that have those indigenous roots,” said newly elected Students’ Association president Deijanelle Simon.

The courtyard is inspired by Algonquin fishing weirs and will be surrounded by indigenous plants from the area, some of which are medicinal. There will also be a rainwater collection system that will funnel back to the Green Roof located in the ACCE building. In the centre of the courtyard will be a fire circle.

The courtyard will function as what McLester calls an outdoor indigenous classroom which he believes is a more stimulating way of learning than inside a lecture hall. It will be an open space that can be visited year-round and is planned to be completed on Dec. 1.

The last element in the new building is the Commons on the bottom floor. McLester compares it to a tipi because there is an area with a circular room that can be built up when it’s needed and taken back down, making it a multifunctional space.

“This is a tangible example of how we can reflect on indigenous knowledge and then embed it into 21-century thinking,” said McLester. He believes the possibilities will be endless for the use of this space including weddings, speaking engagements and smudging ceremonies.

The official names for the four elements have been chosen but McLester cannot share this information with the Algonquin Times at this stage; however, plans for the name reveals should be scheduled later this semester.

There is also a three-story-high mural in the new building. This was also largely funded by the SA donation and was completed by two indigenous graffiti artists brought from outside North America.

The mural includes a moose, the Tree of Peace, strawberries and natural medicines and in the centre of it all, Turtle Island, which is the name many indigenous groups call North America.

Since the four main elements are not yet operational, many students are unaware of the cultural influences in DARE.

First-year office administration student Deanna Pepabano just recently found out about these projects. But, like many others in the Indigenous community, she appreciates the efforts to bring awareness to the college and believes this is a step in the right direction for truth and reconciliation.

The hopes in having all these indigenous aspects in DARE will be to educate the entire student body on indigenous culture, identity and history.

“It’s a chance to come be with us. Learn from us. Learn with us,” said Ron McLester.“ And now we will have the physical places to do it.”