Odeyto provides a home away from home for Indigenous students at Seneca College

Interior Designer: Valerie Gow, ARIDO
Design Firm: Gow Hastings Architects with Two Row Architects
Project Photographer: Tom Arban

Odeyto, the new home for the First Peoples @ Seneca Newnham Campus, is intended to provide a safe and recognizable space for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students alike while attending Seneca College. Often, Indigenous students have left their home communities for the first time and travelled to unknown urban landscapes to pursue their education. The design of Odeyto (Anishinaabe word for ‘good journey’) reflects and acknowledges this. It was created as a home away from home, a place where students can gather, not only to practice their traditions, but also to find new friendships and family while away from their communities.

Conceptually, the addition and renovation was inspired by the image of a canoe pulling up to a dock — making a stop at Seneca College to gather knowledge before continuing on life’s journey. The addition’s canoe-like form is “docked” alongside the contrasting rigid lines of the existing precast concrete building. As the only building on campus with an organic curvilinear design, the “canoe” has a distinctive presence, announcing its importance through its form.

Exterior view of the Odeyto building.

Striking when viewed from the outside, the building’s curves create a warm, womb-like interior. The structure alludes to the Haudenasaunee longhouse, a traditional reference further reinforced by glass entrances on the east and west, where two red doors, aligned to the summer solstice, honour the missing and murdered indigenous women. The building incorporates aspects of traditional knowledge drawn from many other Indigenous cultures across Turtle Island.

Neon channel sculpture by Joi T. Arcand, 'Don't be shy' in Cree sylabics.

In alignment with sunrise ceremonies common to many Indigenous Nations, the angle of the “canoe” lines up with the rising sun on the summer solstice — an acknowledgement of rebirth, spring, and our connection to the earth. From an architectural point of view, this simple but meaningful move breaks away from the colonial grid that dominates on Seneca’s Newnham Campus.

Wood predominates in the interior, reinforcing the analogy to a canoe. The interior of the building consists of two distinct spaces: The former classroom has been remodeled into a warmly lit work area with a low ceiling, where students can use computers, work with tutors, or speak with a counsellor. Beyond this, in the new purpose-built addition, the main lounge is a generous space for gatherings. Its high, curved ceiling is supported by glue-laminated rib structures. Their connections are visibly expressed, in celebration of the craft and beauty of the building’s construction — much as a birch bark canoe’s beauty is manifested through its construction, not decoration. Thin and light, the 28 glue-laminated ribs resemble the ribs of a canoe or mammal. The number is a nod to the number of days in one cycle of the moon.

The renovation part of this project offers a bridge between the rigours of post-secondary education and the familiarity of culture. It’s a space that provides the necessities of academic life — counsellors’ offices, study space, a place to print — and, at the same time, a safe harbour, a “dock” where a canoe can stay a while.

The design team also worked with advisors from Two Row Architects, a native-owned architecture firm which focuses on “guiding the realignment of mainstream ways of thinking on their journey towards Indigenous ways of knowing, being, design and architecture.“

Panorama of Odeyto interior with students sitting around a table and computers.

Gow Hastings says, “Design features influenced by this knowledge include the structure’s directionality, alignment with celestial cycles, cultural observances, value of materials, tactility, craft, expression of structure, and extension into the surrounding landscape.”