U of G to establish Indigenous research lab, unique at a Canadian university

An Indigenous-based research laboratory will be established at the University of Guelph, the educational institution has announced.

‘I think it’s timely in terms of what we’ve been processing ... as Indigenous communities,' developer says

Drs. Kim Anderson, Brittany Luby and Sheri Longboat lead Nokom’s House research lab at U of G. (Tenille Campbell)

An Indigenous-based research laboratory will be established at the University of Guelph, the educational institution has announced.

Nokom's House research laboratory will be a permanent, Indigenous, land-based and community-engaged space, the university said Thursday in a release, noting it's believed to be the first of its kind at a Canadian university.

U of G associate professors Kim Anderson, Sheri Longboat and Brittany Luby are leading the development, with the guidance of Indigenous community members and elders.

Nokom is abbreviated from nokomis, an Ojibway word for grandmother. Like a grandmother's home, it will be a welcoming, nurturing and safe place to learn, gather, create and take part in ceremony, Anderson told CBC K-W.

"I think that's unique in terms of it's not what we think of as a place and space where university-based research is being conducted.

"So, creating a home space as a lab, I think is unique, and trying to build it in such a way that it replicates Indigenous home spaces, in particular those of Indigenous grandmothers."

[We'll] have a building but the building is fluid with the land in and around it so that people can move fluidly in those spaces between the building and the land surrounding it.- Kim Anderson, University of Guelph

The lab will be situated in a section of U of G's sprawling Arboretum, surrounded by trees and other plants. The Arboretum encompasses about 162 hectares adjacent to the campus, featuring plant collections, gardens, walking trails, natural woodlands, wetlands and meadows. 

Established in 1970, the Arboretum is home to more than 2,000 different taxa of woody plants, in thematic collections such as a synoptic world of trees, native trees of Ontario, and noteworthy collections of oaks, beeches, maples and conifers.

"The intention is for it to be land based … surrounded by trees and so on," Anderson said.

"[We'll] have a building but the building is fluid with the land in and around it so that people can move fluidly in those spaces between the building and the land surrounding it."

Preliminary design workshops were held with members of the local Indigenous community, Elders and Knowledge Keepers. (Skylar Sookpaiboon)

According to the university, Nokom's House will serve as a shared research lab for the three professors and be used by students, as well as communities and individuals with whom they collaborate on various research projects.

All three professors are Indigenous and noted for their research on Indigenous subjects. They expect Nokom's House to serve as a model for welcoming Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing into post-secondary settings and other sectors of society.

U of G approves $2.4M for Nokom's House

The University of Guelph has approved an overall project budget of $2.4 million for Nokom's House, with the Canada Foundation for Innovation John R. Evans Leaders Fund awarding the project $298,160.

A fundraising campaign is also underway, with $53,250 committed or pledged.

Construction on Nokom's House is expected to begin in 2022. While the design of the building and its surrounding space are in the early development stage, it will have characteristics of a home space or cabin, including a kitchen and a large kitchen table. Other proposed elements include a wood stove, lounge space, consultation room and porch.

Anderson said the lab will also serve as a space where people can gather to heal together, in the wake of several Indigenous communities announcing that hundreds of unmarked graves have been detected at the sites of former residential schools.

"I think it's timely in terms of what we've been processing, certainly as Indigenous communities but, you know, the Canadian population at large, around what we've been learning about the residential schools and the destruction of Indigenous homes, home spaces, kinship and relations," Anderson said.

"It's timely in terms of committing ourselves to rebuilding, and rebuilding in those places where we find ourselves."

This 'is truly powerful'

Longboat, a professor in the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, agrees it's an important time for such a project.

"We talk about decolonization and Indigenization, about making space or reclaiming space for Indigenous Peoples within the academy," said Longboat, whose community-engaged applied research aims to bridge First Nations communities, government and industry partners to support self-determined Indigenous planning and development.

"It is such an important time for us to be doing this, given the political climate and increasing social awareness around the atrocities of Indian residential schools. 

"An Indigenous research lab led by Indigenous women to make or reclaim space in the academy is truly powerful. This could contribute to great change," added Longboat, a Haudenosaunee Mohawk and band member of the Six Nations of the Grand River.

The proposed site of Nokom’s House research lab at U of G’s Arboretum. (Amina Lalor)

Luby, whose paternal ancestors originate from Niisaachewan Anishinaabe Nation, is a professor in the department of history. Her research expertise includes Anishinaabe family responses to settler encroachment with a special focus on water infrastructure, an expertise that has led her to the study of Anishinaabe aquaculture, particularly manomin (wild rice) stewardship.

When teaching Anishinaabe environmental philosophy, Luby talks tells students about the importance of building relationships — from getting to know plants by name, to recognizing plant needs and responding to them appropriately.

"It doesn't quite resonate when you're in a brick building and looking at a PowerPoint screen," she said.

"I see Nokom's House as providing us with an opportunity to reconnect with land as a teacher and to enliven Indigenous pedagogy at the University of Guelph."

Arboretum director Justine Richardson has worked with the research team to help select a site.

She said the Arboretum's long-term ecological restoration efforts and work to conserve the biodiversity of native Ontario trees for future generations align well with Indigenous approaches to research and the Nokom's House team.

"As a green space and land-based hub for research, teaching and community engagement right beside campus, we are committed to walking step-by-step with Indigenous colleagues, researchers' students and partners toward learning truth, seeking reconciliation and braiding knowledges," Richardson said.


Desmond Brown

Web Writer / Editor

Desmond joined CBC News in October 2017. He previously worked with The Associated Press, Caribbean Media Corporation and Inter Press Service. You can reach him at: