Mike Auksi has a passion for Hart House that was sparked long before he ever set foot in the iconic building.
From a young age, he heard family stories about a very special old building, full of life, on U of T campus. His academic and professional journeys have taken him in and out of Hart House doors countless times to break a sweat, break bread and now to break down barriers in his current role as the Education & Wellness Research Coordinator at the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. It’s a path that takes him full circle from fledging student finding his footing, to academic advocate, showing young people from marginalized and less visible groups that they belong here.
“I remember my godmother always raving about Hart House. She would say, ‘One day you’re going to go to university and to Hart House and you’ll have the time of your life.’ And my connection to Hart House goes even further back than that. My mother and godmother originally met through a network of international students who enjoyed spending time at Hart House. The remarkable thing is that my parents met through my godmother, who at the time was working as a nurse in northern Ontario. The first time I actually set foot in the building was when I was an undergraduate student in Indigenous studies at U of T. I was also playing hockey for the Varsity Blues and I really enjoyed coming to the gym. Of course the building was so beautiful. But what I loved most was that everyone was just really friendly. And that has always meant a lot to me.”
“Then more recently when I was working at Native Child and Family Services of Toronto in 2017, I connected with the staff here about Hart House opening their doors to provide archery programming for Indigenous youth. And we ended up launching the program, which has been wildly successful. My involvement with Hart House is still strong as I was recently asked to support a campus tour to a group of Indigenous and other less visible students from the Toronto District School Board. These were young people early in their high school journeys and the tour’s purpose was to expose them to the University and explore Hart House in a fun and inspiring way. I have always felt that had I’d known just a couple more things about like what it would be like at university and if that information was coming from a person more like myself, getting to university would have been a smoother transition for me.”
“So, my role in working with Hart House has largely been focused on breaking down those barriers that may be holding kids back from realizing their potential.”
“And then once you arrive here, in particular as an Indigenous person, it can be a little bit disorienting sometimes to get really excited about certain traditions or celebrations like Canada 150 or Thanksgiving. However, I was so proud to have attended the Hart House Thanksgiving dinner last year with my mother. My mother’s Estonian and my father’s Ojibway from Lac Seul First Nation. I was born in Toronto and think it’s an amazing place that really celebrates diversity. I think Hart House hit the mark on reflecting the best of the city at that Thanksgiving dinner. They included Indigenous traditions, like hand drumming. The Warden, John Monahan, acknowledged the territory where everybody was about to dine together. He started by asking, ‘for whom here tonight is this your first Thanksgiving dinner?’ And you know, there were many different people in that shared space, from so many backgrounds, and half of the hands in that room went up. And when I saw it, I was like, ‘Okay. This is interesting.’ So now that’s going to become a tradition – for me and my mom. It was wonderful. I think Hart House is in a position of being, or is well on its way to becoming, a truly welcoming space to everyone. “