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Project manager Lewis Cardinal stands in an under-construction building at kihciy askiy in Edmonton’s river valley on May 24.Kelsey McMillan/The Globe and Mail

In Edmonton’s river valley near the Whitemud Creek, a former piece of farmland is returning to its roots. Indigenous oral histories tell of foraging for medicines here. Ceremonies once took place on this land, some using ochre from a nearby deposit.

This storied spot in Whitemud Park, previously known as the Fox Farms site, is transforming into a permanent, urban Indigenous ceremonial site, a place for sweat lodges, pipe ceremonies, traditional teachings and land-based learning. Expected to open early next year, it’s called kihciy askiy, Cree for sacred land.

This site, a partnership between the Indigenous Knowledge and Wisdom Centre and the City of Edmonton, is the first of its kind in Canada, said Lewis Cardinal, project manager for kihciy askiy – and a “bold act of reconciliation.”

A three-hour drive south in Calgary, a permanent Indigenous gathering space is also advancing. The City of Calgary is exploring the transfer of city-owned land near the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers, a traditional gathering place, to a local non-profit organization. The Indigenous Gathering Place Society of Calgary envisions a building and outdoor space for learning, connecting and celebrating Indigenous cultures.

“I truly, with all my heart, believe that we need this,” said Doreen Healy, a member of the Blood Tribe who was taken from her family at the age of five and sent to residential school. Now an elder with the society, Ms. Healy said she cried tears of gratitude and relief when Calgary’s city council unanimously voted in February to move forward on determining a location for the land transfer.

While organizers with kihciy askiy in Edmonton and the Indigenous Gathering Place Society in Calgary describe these projects as overdue, they’re thrilled about what finally having permanent urban spaces for ceremonial gatherings and cultural exchanges will mean for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

“Right now, we’re the only people who have to leave the city in order to do our basic ceremonies,” said Mr. Cardinal. In Calgary, the Indigenous Gathering Place Society notes there are more than 500 spaces devoted to cultures and spirituality in the city, but not one specifically designated for Indigenous ceremonial and cultural practices.

For the past 16 years, Mr. Cardinal, who is Woodland Cree, has been involved in creating a permanent site for Indigenous ceremonies in Edmonton, home to the second-largest urban Indigenous population in the country. He first worked with a council of elders to bring a proposal to the city in 2006. He rattles off the many meetings, discussions, studies and consultations that have happened since then.

Elder input has continued to drive the project, said Mr. Cardinal, including “marching orders” to create a site responsive to the needs of all Indigenous communities. Elders valued a location accessible by public transit, and it had to offer people an opportunity to connect to the land. Non-Indigenous Edmontonians can also learn about Indigenous ceremonies and history at kihciy askiy.

The final 4.5-hectare site is on a bus route, said Morgan Bamford, team lead with the City of Edmonton’s Indigenous Relations Office. “It’s about removing the barriers to accessing ceremonial and land-based teaching for people in Edmonton,” he said.

Construction on kihciy askiy is underway and expected to be completed later this year. The $6.5-million project will include a pavilion with washrooms and changing facilities; a storage building; four sweat lodges and a permanent stone heating area; tipis; and a large tent for ceremonial feasts and cultural teachings. The Indigenous Knowledge and Wisdom Centre will operate the site, with the land and buildings owned by the city.

“We know that access to culture and ceremony is key in wellness in our community,” Mr. Cardinal said. “The more that we see Indigenous people recognizing their indigeneity, and also moving into the urban centres, they need to have access to these resources so that they can feel more grounded in who they are.”

Nav Sandhu, program manager at the City of Edmonton overseeing the construction of kihciy askiy, said social procurement was incorporated into the project, including hiring an Indigenous human resources co-ordinator and turning to local Indigenous businesses for labour and resources. And unlike other construction projects, there was a ground blessing ceremony, instead of a groundbreaking ceremony.

Other cities are taking notice. Mr. Cardinal said he’s heard from people in Winnipeg and Toronto looking to learn more about Edmonton’s new site.

“Having these kinds of spaces where Indigenous light can flourish, in whatever that form is, and whatever way that is… these spaces are all really important,” said Heather Dorries, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto in the Department of Geography and Planning and the Centre for Indigenous Studies.

Prof. Dorries researches how urban planning has affected Indigenous peoples and communities. All cities in Canada are built on Indigenous territories, she said, yet Indigenous histories were erased from these places and policies existed to keep Indigenous people out.

In cities, Indigenous people have long worked to make space for gathering and other community needs, Prof. Dorries said. As urban spiritual and cultural gathering places gain momentum and broader community support, she hopes the previous work of Indigenous people is not forgotten.

In Calgary, Michelle Fournie was introduced to the concept of a gathering place in 2014, through a local workshop on reconciliation. Now volunteer co-chair of the Indigenous Gathering Place Society, Ms. Fournie emphasizes building such a site is not a new idea.

The city’s real estate division is looking into details of the land transfer, and in the meantime, Ms. Fournie said the society is continuing its grassroots approach to engagement and preparing to start a capital campaign next year.

Ms. Fournie wonders what having an Indigenous gathering place when she was a kid would have meant for her life. “I was born and raised in Calgary and as an urban-based Métis person living in the aftermath of intergenerational trauma. I struggled to find a sense of community to learn about myself and other Indigenous peoples,” she said.

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