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Portage unveils cultural space to reflect and learn

Cultural Space’s name “Waniskah" means Arise, Wake Up and Rise

Portage College opened its new Cultural Space at the Lac La Biche campus last week with a community gathering and Round Dance.  

The new area will serve as a ceremonial and gathering centre for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, as well as community members, said Portage President and CEO Nancy Broadbent at an invitational opening ceremony last Friday. 

“The room is intended to be a place where there will be learning going on. There will be elders and knowledge-keepers doing teachings, but it's also for students at any time they would like to go smudge ...or if they need quiet time to reflect and get themselves centred,” she said. 

The large, bright area features illustrations and tree shapes along the walls, images and blankets and a large animal hide on the floor in one corner. There is a formal sitting area with desks and tables, and a two-storey high, modern tipi structure that is a focal point of the area, drawing attention upwards. 

Friday’s opening drew hundreds of community members, Indigenous leaders, and municipal and provincial officials from across Alberta to tour the new space and other unique areas of the college, including program areas and the on-site Museum of Aboriginal Peoples’ Art & Artifacts. The gathering also included a smudge and pipe ceremony and a sharing circle to bless the new space. 

Following last Friday’s official dedication ceremony, the college gymnasium echoed with the sound of drums and song as participants took part in a round dance.  

“Typically a round dance is to celebrate something great for the host, so it was really fitting to have a round dance,” Broadbent said. 

Broadbent said a portion of the event that offered comments directly from Indigenous leaders and Elders about the importance to them of the Cultural Space, was a highlight.

“They all got up and spoke about how important it is to have rooms like this available to people of both Indigenous and non-indigenous because we all have to learn—we are all related, is what they said…to have everybody recognize that the college is very important to their students and their communities—It was a really great feeling,” she told Lakeland This Week, expressing pride for the local students, community members, artists, local Indigenous leaders and college staff who helped to develop the idea.  

Commissioned artists and Portage College alumni Amber Weasel Head and Jamie John-Kehewin helped to raise the Cultural Space’s mikiwahp or tipi. The Mikiwahp is comprised of four poles and a hand-painted liner.

“We are very honoured to be included through sharing ideas, harvesting the poles, collaborating the mural and setting up the mikiwahp with our students,” said Weasel Head. “The teachings create an essence of connection through stories, arts, language and culture. We see the Cultural Space (providing) a place for connections, (to) share ideas and provide a space of understanding and healing.”

Broadnent agrees, saying the dedicated space will serve as a place to continue the college’s founding principles of inclusivity, culture, history, truth and reconciliation. 

“It’s our obligation as an educational institution to make sure we’re sharing culture, awareness of Canada’s true history…It’s also about how can you become an ally and reconcile with our fellow people,” Broadbent said. 

Naming the centre 

The newly-constructed centre is named ‘Waniskah’ a Cree word meaning ‘Arise, Wake Up and Rise.’ The name honours the college’s past and its future, said Broadbent.  

In 1970, just two years after federal funding allowed the Alberta New Start campus to open its doors in Lac La Biche, the government attempted to close the institution. Indigenous students at the school and community members protested through a 26-day sit-in. Funding was restored to the facility which has grown over 50 years to serve students from around the community, the region, province, country and world. Continuing to recognize this history of the school’s beginnings and creating spaces for Indigenous culture is a part of the continued effort to support the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, said Broadbent. 

“The reason we chose that name is because in 1970 we were given the name ‘Pe-ta-Pun’ which means ‘New Dawn’ in Cree. We felt that in honour of Truth and Reconciliation we all need to wake up to the reality of life and also to the spirituality that the room brings, “ she explained. 

Ultimately, creating spaces like Waniskah is vital for everyone. College officials hope to see the space utilized year-round for learning and healing opportunities. They are also ready to promote the room — and what it stands for — to other visitors.  

“The room is open. We are happy to give tours of the room and our museum at the same time… If people are interested in the room they should come and check it out,” the president said.  

Student leaders say the new space will offer another benefit to the learning experience.

“The student council feels this venue will provide an important role in the lives and education of our students,” said SAPC President, Katelynn Manuel.

External funding contributed more than $23,000 to the Cultural Space's overall budget of approximately $100,000. Cenovus Energy donated $12,500, and the Students Association at Portage College (SAPC) donated $1,500. An additional $1,075 was also raised through the Resource One Aboriginal Business Association (ROABA) Golf Tournament, and a Portage College Athletics Association Craffle raised more than $8,000.