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The Odeyto Indigenous Centre in Seneca College, Toronto.TOM ARBAN/Tom Arban

Let’s say, for fun, that you are visiting Seneca College’s Newnham campus at Finch Avenue East and Highway 404 in North York. And let’s further say that you agree to be led around this assemblage of buildings – built from the late-1960s to the present day – with only your senses of touch, smell and hearing as your information-gathering tools.

Through most of the buildings, especially the concrete behemoths by mid-century powerhouse John B. Parkin Associates, it would be a pretty boring tour: clinical, odourless and mostly smooth the touch. A walk through the new food hall (2021) by Taylor Smyth Architects would, thankfully, add the audio clatter and olfactory stimulation of cooking.

But, walk down one particular corridor and there is something altogether different as nostrils flare at the smell of burnt sage. You ask your guide to bring you to its source, which leads your fingertips to reach out and feel the imperfections of a tall wooden door. Open that door, and take off the blindfold.

Welcome to Odeyto, Seneca’s Indigenous Centre, which opened in 2018.

And although the first little bit of this learning, socializing and gathering space is a renovation of an older bit of the school’s architecture – a classroom – the good folks at Gow Hastings Architects and the Indigenous-owned Two Row Architect have ensured that, even here, there are no traces of grey, institutional blandness. From the Indigenous drums and artifacts in the various wall-niches to the vibrant pink neon sign spelling out “Don’t be shy” in Cree syllabics (by artist Joi T. Arcand) over the computer station, one immediately feels warmth and shelter.

  • Odeyto Indigenous Centre, Seneca College, Toronto. Gow Hastings Architects and Two Row Architect.TOM ARBAN/Tom Arban

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And that’s the point, says Two Row’s Matt Hickey: “Conceptually, from a narrative point of view, the idea was about pulling up to a safe harbour; you turn your canoe over and you can store your stuff underneath it.”

Walk past the computer station and, in the classic Frank Lloyd Wright move of compression-and-release, one is released into a light-filled, high-ceilinged, warm space with curving walls constructed of enormous, nautical-like ribs made of glued laminated timber. One is now, literally, under an overturned canoe.

But before an examination of that space, Mr. Hickey, who identifies as Mohawk, brings us outside to show how the new addition doesn’t line up with the old building. “This building is on a skew as if it’s kind of something new that’s pulled up to this place. … The alignment is with the rising sun of June 21, so the summer solstice; in Indigenous cultures we have a lot of sunrise ceremonies.”

The wooden ribs, he continues, number 28 to correspond with the moon cycle, and the general curved shape with doors on both ends references the longhouse, which the Seneca people and other Haudenosaunee built. The two-toned, triangular roof cladding has a dual meaning: it resembles reptilian scutes or scales, and it also calls to mind the Evergrowing Tree wampum (a sacred belt beaded with patterns that can be a visual memory keeper or used in treaties, and sometimes both).

“We think that within a campus there should be this layering of knowledge,” Mr. Hickey says. “It’s not just this one token thing, it should be a continuation.”

Enter through one of the tall, red-painted doors, and one will certainly experience layers of emotion: awe at the design and craftsmanship of the glulam ribs, perhaps; maybe an appreciation of the importance of light on a cold November day; a sense of homecoming upon plunking down in one of the “Crosshatch” chairs (manufactured by Geiger) in order to have a casual chat; or even relief from hunger upon looking over at the stove.

“Nine times out of 10 there’s a pot of soup on,” says Mark Solomon, senior adviser to the president on Reconciliation and Inclusion. “Food insecurity is big for our students. … Many come from First Nations that, in fact, don’t understand the realities of living in Toronto and the expense … so we’re trying to give them at least one hot meal a day.”

“We often refer to this as auntie’s kitchen or auntie’s house, where it’s very warm, very welcoming,” Mr. Hickey says.

Indeed, Odeyto is a warm, flexible, 1,800-square-foot space that can easily bounce from hosting classes and workshops to formal Elder discussions or casual drop-ins … or even information sessions for non-Indigenous faculty to learn about the residential school system. And the building is not just for the exclusive use of the 1.9 to 2.1 per cent of Indigenous students at this campus (total student body is more than 15,000 at Newnham), it’s for the extended community as well, says Mr. Solomon: “We’ve hosted funerals here, we’ve hosted feasts, naming ceremonies … in fact this is the only Indigenous, true kind of community space north of Bloor [Street] so it’s between us and Barrie [Ont.] or Georgina Island.”

That’s too bad. Because, at the risk of sounding pat, Indigenous-inspired buildings have a way of connecting a person to the land (Odeyto’s row of low windows look onto native grasses) in a way that very few by non-Indigenous architects can; the tactility of materials speaks to the soul in ways concrete and glass could never; and when one takes the time to understand the raison d’être for their siting and massing, one feels a sense of something bigger at play.

“That’s one of the things that we’re trying to push forward with our work,” Mr. Hickey says. “To make people think in a different way; our relationship to the world around us … including the rain, or the wind, these things are gifts to us. If we don’t have them our world will not continue.”

And while Seneca might have been able to continue without the award-winning Odeyto, which means “the good journey” in Anishinaabe, its presence is a cultural and architectural gift that benefits the entire city.

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