The Good Journey: Odeyto Indigenous Centre, Toronto, Ontario

Designed by Gow Hastings and Two Row Architects, the Odeyto Indigenous Centre at Seneca College is a small space with a big mission.

Wooden ribs frame the interior of the student-centred space, which is designed to evoke the underside of an upturned canoe. Photo by Tom Arban

“I wasn’t really aware: nobody told us or discussed it, except maybe at parties…” This is how Peggy Pitawanakwat, former Wikwemikong Chief and current First Peoples Co-ordinator at Seneca College, describes her understanding of Canada’s devastating residential school system as a teenager growing up on Manitoulin Island. Her words are
a powerful reminder of the need for community-based spaces, including the new Odeyto Indigenous Centre at Seneca: a small but thoughtfully accommodating social hub where students and elders can counsel one another on the past and future of Indigenous culture, celebrate its traditions, and spread awareness of its difficult truths.

The desire to connect and learn more about Indigenous culture is what brings me to Odeyto on a frigid afternoon in late February. I am among a small assembly of strangers who have gathered for a screening of Indian Horse—a film portraying the true-to-life story of a First Nations boy who survived Canada’s residential school system in the 1970s. We are a multi-cultural group, but here, under Odeyto’s sinuous array of tall, vaulted wood ribs, we are all welcome in equal measure.

Named with an Anishinaabe word meaning “the good journey,” Odeyto marks a new, alternative entrance into Seneca’s Newnham Campus. Its modest 167 square metres are situated at the centre of an Indigenized landscape that includes a coniferous boreal garden to the west and a deciduous medicine garden to the east. The centre’s curved edges break away from the otherwise dominant colonial grid found on campus. Working in tandem, its interior and exterior spaces render homage to the Haudenasaunee Longhouse typology and embrace the site’s shifting sun and wind conditions throughout the year. Odeyto’s connection to nature is perhaps most evident on June 21, when its primary circulation axis aligns with the summer solstice, and traditional sunrise ceremonies are celebrated.

“Expressing a truth in materials was very important to the project,” says Matthew Hickey of Two Row Architects, who completed the project with Gow Hastings Architects. Built upon native ground—which, according to Hickey, involved removing substantial amounts of diesel-infused soil—the building’s formal expression as an upturned, resting canoe involves 28 vaulted Douglas Fir glulam ribs (one for each day of the lunar cycle) bearing on exposed concrete to provide an open but protected sense of place. Entry doors painted bright red encourage visitors to “walk the red road”—meaning to live a life of respect, humility, and truthfulness—and recognize Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and children. The building’s exterior is clad in triangulated zinc shingles, whose layered and canopy-like arrangements recall the Haudenosaunee’s symbolic White Pine Tree of Peace, and whose subtle glint evokes fish scales.

As the film concludes, the room feels tense and our group’s subsequent discussions are emotional. We share words of outrage and disbelief, but also of hope and reconciliation. This is a testament to Odeyto’s success as a communal building. It delivers on its promise to provide a place of support and discourse—not only for the estimated 400-700 students at Seneca who identify as Indigenous, but for anyone eager to learn, reflect, and celebrate Indigenous culture.

“Odeyto provides us the opportunity to ask questions, story-tell, spread awareness and wellness, and to build stronger communities,” says Pitawanakwat. “It will take generations to heal, but Odeyto is certainly a step in the right direction.”

Paul Dolick is an OAA Intern and Adjunct Instructor at the Universities of Toronto and Waterloo.