On Saturday, May 8, the First Nations and communities that call the northwest region of British Columbia home gathered to celebrate a memorable point in Northwest Community College’s transformative journey.
That’s the day Northwest Community College (NWCC) invited the public to share in and witness the opening of Waap Galts’ap, a spectacular longhouse that’s been built on the College’s Terrace campus.
Not only is Waap Galts’ap—Tsimshian for “community house”—a first within the city limits of Terrace, but it is also a first such undertaking by NWCC or any other community college across Canada.
Waap Galts’ap is a collaborative project initiated by NWCC in consultation with its First Nations Council and leaders of the local Tsimshian people. Its completion is viewed as a crowning achievement in the transformative journey, the College’s years-long quest towards becoming a truly bi-cultural institution of learning.
Since taking over as NWCC President in 2000, Stephanie Forsyth has led this change. She says the College’s approach to education is based on inclusion, respect and celebration of various world views, particularly the world view of Northwest First Nations communities, which account for nearly 40 per cent of the regional population.
“First Nations people were significantly under represented at the College in the past. If you look at the College's recent history, there are several initiatives we’ve undertaken to both increase Aboriginal enrolment and overall participation at NWCC,” states Forsyth. She points as examples the creation of a First Nations Council, the appointment of campus First Nations access coordinators, the raising of totem poles at NWCC campuses and the election of a first-ever First Nations Chair of the College Board of Governors in 2008.
“This is a historic, celebratory event for us as a College,” adds Forsyth. “Waap Galts’ap is a further significant expression of our commitment to ensuring that the culture and tradition of First Nations students and their communities are valued and respected at NWCC.”
Sanctioned by representatives of the Tsimshian Hereditary chiefs and Elders of the Kitsumkalum and Kitselas Bands and NWCC's First Nations Council, Waap Galts’ap will be a gathering place for student, College and public ceremonies, functions and celebrations, as well as a showcase for First Nations art.
Irene Seguin, NWCC Board of Governors Chair, says the vision for Waap Galts’ap is as a safe haven for students and a community gathering place. Seguin is from the Laxgibuu (Wolf clan) of the Nisga’a Nation and wears the hereditary title Hagwilook’am Saxwhl Giis from the House of Baxk’ap.
“’Waap’ translated is ‘house’ or ‘enclosed structure’ and ‘Galts'ap’ is ‘village,’” states Seguin. “So it is a house for the village. As a ‘village house’ it will serve many purposes: a meeting room when one is needed; a place to come together to celebrate; a place for counselling when that is needed; and a place to cultural awareness. It will also be a place to showcase the talent that we have in our region with the art displays. Perhaps this will promote more understanding of us because the art has a story and a meaning.”
The art of which Seguin speaks of represents the finishing touches on the magnificent structure on the western edge of NWCC’s Terrace campus, just steps away from the Nisga’a Highway.
Stan Bevan, master carver and instructor with NWCC’s Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art, coordinated the development of designs specifically created to fit the architecture of Waap Galts’ap and put together a group of artists including fellow master carver and instructor Ken McNeil, as well as current and former students. They have produced stunning works depicting the four crests of the Tsimshian people—eagle, killer whale, raven and wolf—on interior and exterior art panels, four interior crest poles and two exterior house poles, all of which will be unveiled to the public May 8.
The project itself was kicked off officially in March 2009 when Kitsumkalum Elder Mildred Roberts delivered a blessing (Waap Galts’ap is on the hereditary estates of the Laxgibuu Clan) of the building site, supported by Laxgibuu Clan Matriarch Vera Dudoward, and numerous Elders, and representatives from Kitselas, Kitsumkalum and the College community.
An original opening in the fall of 2009 had to be pushed back when difficulties arose in procuring logs meeting engineer specifications. The foundation had been previously formed and installed by NWCC carpentry students and instructors but construction was stalled until August 2009 when the appropriate logs were finally found. In early September, Waap Galts’ap really began to take form. NWCC log and timber frame instructor Higgs Murphy, students and a selection of industry professionals and local labourers used 36,000 board feet of cedar, fir and hemlock for the log mainposts, beams and roof structure and 160 linear feet of 16"x33" Glulam beams to support the rafters.
Designed by architect Dr. Nancy Mackin, Waap Galts’ap measures about about 50 feet by 80 feet with a second story of about 50 feet by 30 feet. The main floor consists of a gathering space/ feast hall of about 50 by 50 feet that contains the painted art panels and carved crest poles on the four main support poles. Also on the main floor are washrooms, an Elders’ room, a serving kitchen, and a seminar room. Upstairs are seminar rooms, offices, and an accessible washroom. There is a basement containing mechanical and electrical rooms and furniture storage.
The building has two entrances: a ceremonial entrance into the gathering space and a second entrance that is oriented towards other buildings on campus. There is also an entrance directly into the serving kitchen.
Northwest Community College is eager to celebrate the opening of Waap Galts’ap with the public on Saturday, May 8 at 1 p.m. The events feature totem pole raisings, the blessing of the building, First Nations song and dance, and the acknowledgement of people involved in the project. A feast celebrating the event will follow.
Gerald Wesley, NWCC Board of Governors member for Terrace and Kitsumkalum Elder, says he’s eagerly anticipating the May 8 event. “I look forward to seeing hundreds of students, Native and non-Native, standing with their families and community leaders in witnessing the opening of a truly wonderful new structure, and (to seeing) that all of us will stand with a sense of pride that a dream can become reality with perseverance, hard work and clarity for what we want,” says Wesley.
Adds Seguin, “I’m looking forward to the positive energy, the refilling of spirit that comes with positive energy. I’m looking forward to the gathering of many Nations in a common celebration. And I’m looking forward to the positive ripples that will begin on that day.