The sound of simultaneous conversations fills UBC’s Sty-Wet-Tan Hall in the First Nations Longhouse as students, faculty, and community members line large tables for a weekly lunch and information session.
After Musqueam elder Larry Grant welcomes the group, and the sponsoring department of the week—this time, it’s First Nations Studies—gives a presentation, attendees spend the rest of the lunch hour talking to each other.
It’s all part of a Tuesday ritual at the longhouse on the UBC campus that brings together both aboriginal and nonaboriginal students.
Rodney Little Mustache, an arts-faculty student who is a member of the Piikani Nation, is one of the regular attendees at the gatherings. Today, he’s seated across from other regulars, including dual Canadian and New Zealand citizen David Geary; Sina Radmard, a mechanical-engineering student from Iran; and Omar Abril, who was born in Colombia.
“I’ve met people from all over the world here so far,” Little Mustache says. “Here in this room alone, there’s so many different cultures that you make connections with, and I love that.”
As aboriginal enrollment grows at UBC, so does the range of subjects that First Nations students are studying. The weekly gatherings in the hall aim to create and maintain a sense of community among aboriginal students from across those departments.
“Many aboriginal students, if they’re in a unit that doesn’t have a huge number of aboriginal students in it, sometimes feel quite isolated,” Linc Kesler, the director of the First Nations House of Learning, told the Georgia Straight by phone. “So it’s a chance for them...to have that kind of a community.”
But the lunches also provide a learning opportunity for those who may not be as familiar with aboriginal history and culture.
Debra Martel, the associate director of the First Nations House of Learning, said there are often nonaboriginal students who attend the meals because they’re “interested in finding ways to create new understandings, build new relationships, and to just sort of move forward”.
She noted the Tuesday lunches re-create the tradition of gathering over a “family meal” and learning something new from one another.
“It’s all about an opportunity to bring people together to have conversation, and food is a nice venue to be able to bring people together: [you] relax, you nourish your body, and you share something,” she said in a phone interview.
For Radmard, it’s that community base that draws him to the hall every week.
“It’s amazing…finding friends, and the sense of connection,” he says. “I have a lot of friends, but it’s not in the sense that we sit together like this…and have a meal. But this gives the same feeling as [when] I’m home, sitting with my family members.”
Today, the conversation at the students’ table revolves around indigenous films. (Geary is an instructor with Capilano University’s Indigenous Independent Filmmakers program.) But the group notes that the lunches often lead to discussions that allow nonaboriginal students to learn about indigenous history.
Radmard says he didn’t know about residential schools until he heard about them by attending the gatherings. He has also learned more about the culture by participating in traditional indigenous ceremonies, like smudging, at the First Nations Longhouse.
“These are different indigenous ceremonies that I always wanted to attend, to see, to experience those, and this place gave me the opportunity,” he says.
Geary notes the gatherings also provide a chance for students from various departments to interact.
“I didn’t know anyone at this university in September, so coming here, I meet all these people,” he says. “You can meet the people in your class, but you don’t tend to have the same kind of casual running into people across the different faculties, and also the different ages. Like, these people who were sitting here, they’re first years. So that’s great that they can come and sit and we can learn off each other.”
Ryan Tomm, who is in the last year of his undergraduate degree in psychology, used to coordinate the weekly lunches. After moving to Vancouver from Kamloops, the First Nations student said he’s been connected through the gatherings to some people who have been “instrumental” in his success.
“There’s students who helped me [by] just having…people to talk to and rely on who are going through the same things as you—kind of getting that emotional support,” he said in a phone interview.
“I’m just amazed with all the up-and-coming aboriginal students coming out of UBC.…It’s just a great group of people, and everyone’s destined to do something great, I feel like.”
He noted that sometimes the Tuesday conversations revolve around how everyone’s week is going, while other days the students engage in meaningful discussions about indigenous issues.
“I think that the idea behind it is great, just to start conversations,” he said.
“The people who are going to be graduating UBC from departments all over campus are going to be the next leaders of Canada, and I think it’s important to have these conversations…so that they can go away knowing a little bit more about aboriginal issues.”