This academic year, the award-winning Indigenous Student Centre (ISC)* at the University of Guelph is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Established in October 2003, the ISC has been a cornerstone in fostering the academic, cultural and personal growth of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis students at U of G.

As we commemorate this milestone, we look forward to marking the occasion at the upcoming annual Celebration of Indigenous Achievement on Saturday, April 6. Hosted by the ISC, the Celebration is a unique opportunity for Indigenous students at U of G to celebrate their successes with the family, friends, Elders and Knowledge Holders who have supported their educational journeys.

A statue of a beaver pushing its hands against a stump in front of the Indigenous Student Centre.
Uhmikwahdeze “The Beaver” is a sculpture in front of the Indigenous Student Centre

Twenty-one years ago, just 68 students identified themselves as Indigenous to the newly established Indigenous Student Society (ISS)** which sought to create a dedicated space for the Indigenous student community on campus. In April 2003, First Nations, Inuit, and Métis staff, student leaders, and community members gathered with University administrators to discuss supporting U of G’s Indigenous students, leading to the establishment of the ISC in the department of Student Experience in October 2003.

Since then, the Indigenous student community has continued to grow on campus. As of this fall, the Indigenous student community at U of G includes 564 self-identified First Nations, Inuit, and Métis students.

“We are proud that as a university we have been able to work with Indigenous students to create a cultural community and home where they can freely explore their identities as First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples,” says Irene Thompson, interim vice-provost (student affairs).

“The tremendous growth and success of the Indigenous Student Centre membership and activities is testament to the partnerships and collaborations between our staff, students and a community of Elders and Knowledge Holders.”  Since its establishment, the ISC has served as a home away from home for self-identified First Nations, Inuit, and Métis students. Programming includes advising support; visiting Elders & Knowledge Holders; transition programs such as START Indigenous; community building, cultural programs and events; and social connections.

Natasha Young, manager of the ISC (member of Whitefish River First Nation), reflects on the role of the ISC:

“During my time as a student, I was grateful to have had the support of the ISC. Since then, I have had the opportunity to journey alongside many Indigenous students as a member of the ISC team. I am incredibly proud of the role that the ISC can have in supporting First Nations, Inuit, and Métis students. The growth of the ISC’s programs and supports is a direct result of the passion and dedication of past and present ISC staff and our commitment to working collaboratively with Indigenous students and campus and community partners. I’m excited to celebrate this milestone and see what the future brings.”

Elders Dan Smoke (Seneca Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy) and Mary Lou Smoke (Ojibway Nation) have been engaging with Indigenous students at U of G since before the ISC was established, regularly sharing their experiences and culture with the campus community.

Elders Dan Smoke and Mary Lou Smoke post together in the snowy woods.
Elders Dan and Mary Lou Smoke

“For over 20 years, we have been the Visiting Elders and helped many students learn more about their culture and traditions. We have watched the students become empowered as they became immersed in the activities and amazing atmosphere at the Indigenous Student Centre. We have been auntie and uncle to the students and community members, helping them through difficult times and showing them the power of our traditional ceremonies, medicines and songs.”

As  U of G continues its journey towards reconciliation and decolonization, the ISC remains a cornerstone of support for Indigenous students.

Dr. Charlotte Yates, U of G president and vice-chancellor, reflects on the significance of the ISC in advancing the institution’s commitment to reconciliation, indigenization and decolonization:

“It has been a pleasure to see the ISC serve such a crucial role for our First Nations, Inuit, and Métis students and community members. Transforming our University through Indigenization is one of the core pillars of our Strategic Plan. By building on the success of the ISC and continuing our commitment to advancing truth and reconciliation, we remain committed to Indigenizing our institution and ensuring an inclusive environment for all.”

As U of G looks forward to the next chapter, the Indigenous Student Centre’s 20th anniversary is not just a celebration of past achievements, but a reaffirmation of the ongoing commitment to Indigenous students’ development, well-being, community and support.

* The Indigenous Student Centre was formerly called the Aboriginal Resource Centre and renamed in 2020

** The Indigenous Student Society was formerly called the Aboriginal Student Association and renamed in 2020