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Place of Great Peace

by sandra mclean

photography by sofie kirk

At a ceremony during National Indigenous Peoples Day, York University’s Hart House was renamed Skennen’kó:wa Gamig. The new name comes from both the Mohawk and Anishinaabe languages. Skennen’ko:wa means “the Great Peace,” a cultural teaching that refers to the bases of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The Great Peace are the laws and responsibilities that Haudenosaunee people aspire to live up to. Gamig is an Anishinaabemowin word that means home or house. We see this house as a space where students, staff and faculty can “come home” to their teachings as they move through the University. With this renaming comes the hope for further understanding and reconciliation between York University and the Indigenous peoples who are a part of the University community.

The renaming ceremony began with a traditional opening by York’s Elder-on-Campus and Indigenous Knowledge Keeper, Amy Desjarlais, followed by a performance by Spirit Wind, a women’s hand drum group.

The house will be a place where that peace can take root through the understanding and rebuilding of relationships. To Ruth Koleszar-Green, co-chair of the Indigenous Council at York, Skennen’kó:wa Gamig reminds her that she has a responsibility to foster peace in the world. “It’s also really important as students come to the University that they have the opportunity to learn not only what they’re taught in their courses, but about their history and heritage,” she said. “Some of those students learn about their history for the first time after coming to York U. This house provides a safe and supportive place for that learning, but it also allows for a space where Indigenous peoples can lead the conversation.”

Skennen’kó:wa Gamig is located on York University’s Keele campus, tucked into a forested area next to Osgoode Hall Law School, on the site of the Centre for Aboriginal Student Services’ Tipi. This entire area is the traditional territory of several Indigenous Nations, including the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Anishinabek Nation, the Wendat, the Métis Nation and the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation.

The house was owned by the Hart family until 1958, and then briefly owned by Claude Passy before York University acquired it in 1964. Its renaming is part of York University’s developing Indigenous Strategy, which includes creating spaces for Indigenous peoples, course content that explores Indigenous life, culture and tradition, and research that is relevant to Indigenous people.

Prior to the renaming ceremony, students from Kiiwednong Aboriginal Head Start planted handmade hearts in Skennen’kó:wa Gamig’s new Heart Garden, which is a Cindy Blackstock national initiative that pays tribute to children who died in residential schools. Blackstock received an ­honorary doctor of laws at York University’s June 23 ­convocation ceremony. She is a member of the Gitxsan First Nation and executive director of the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society.

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