Newly named cabin 'a real space to have hard conversations' for Indigenous students at York U

York University is unveiling its recently renovated space for Indigenous students, faculty and staff, a place that one Indigenous scholar hopes will provide an opportunity to 'start telling truths and hearing reconciliation.'

Formerly Hart House, the space will now be called Skennen'kó:wa Gamig, or House of Great Peace

Formerly called Hart House, the historic cabin recently underwent a full renovation. (Courtesy of York University)

York University is unveiling its recently renovated space for Indigenous students, faculty and staff Wednesday, a place that one Indigenous scholar hopes will provide an opportunity to "start telling truths and hearing reconciliation."

The historic Hart House cabin on the school's Keele campus has been renamed Skennen'kó:wa Gamig, or the House of Great Peace. It will be a dedicated ceremonial and gathering space for the university's Indigenous community. 

The new name is a combination of the Mohawk term for 'The Great Peace,' Skennen'kó:wa (Skenna-go-wa), and the Anishinaabe word for 'house,' Gamig (Gaw-mick). The name was chosen by the university's traditional knowledge keeper.

"It's about providing real space to have hard conversations," Ruth Koleszar-Green, a Mohawk scholar and chair of the Indigenous council at the university, told CBC Toronto.

"It's the first time at York that there has been such a dedicated space and commitment."

In its 94 calls to action released in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended that post-secondary institutions incorporate, "Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods" into programs and provide opportunities for Indigenous students to connect with their cultures.

Skennen'kó:wa Gamig is part of York's efforts to begin the long road to reconciliation on campus. It's a process that Koleszar-Green hopes will bring an influx of Indigenous students.

"For many Indigenous communities, in finding spaces of education there is a lot of pain," she explains, referencing the devastating intergenerational effects of residential schools on Indigenous life in Canada.

"Having this space is foundational to helping our students find home."

She adds that mentorship was key to her success as a doctoral student, and Skennen'kó:wa Gamig will be a place where Indigenous students can connect with people that have been in their shoes. It will provide the "scaffolding" onto which young Indigenous scholars can "rise up."

​Skennen'kó:wa Gamig will be a place for Indigenous students to "learn and embrace themselves in an academic space." (Courtesy of York University)

"I feel like that scaffolding and building of young Indigenous scholarship will actually support reconciliation. Indigenous scholars are telling more truth than have been told in the halls of academia for many, many years," Koleszar-Green says. 

"And I personally don't think we're done telling the truth as Indigenous people."

The Great Law of Peace

Part of those truths are represented by the history behind the building's new name.

The Great Peace refers to a treaty among the five original First Nations of what the French called The Iroquois Confederacy — the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca — that finally brought a prolonged period of war and strife to an end. 

As the history goes, it was achieved because the nations began living by the Great Law of Peace, a sort of oral constitution consisting of many different cultural teachings that are like a road map to a fulfilling and happy life. 

The renaming of Hart House is part of York University's ongoing development and implementation of its 'Indigenous strategy.' Further details of the strategy are set to roll out in late July or early August.