The Road to Right

Improvements in Indigenous development are coming, but not without hurdles.

The Cree Nation of Eastmain, a remote fly-in settlement on the eastern shore of James Bay, may seem, at first glance, to be an unlikely candidate for one of the Federal government’s Smart City grants. Despite the odds, the members of the tiny community pulled together an ambitious plan to develop or refurbish ultra-efficient residential buildings, all of which reflect the outcome of an intensive consultation and prototyping process that has played out in Eastmain over the past two years.

Eastmain, with a population of approximately 800 people, has about 250 dwellings, which is 50 short of what is required to accommodate future growth. The community serves as one of the Cree Nation’s hubs, with government offices, medical facilities, a hotel, radio station and the headquarters of the Cree Regional Trappers network.

The Smart City housing plan, submitted in the $5-million grant category, calls for the creation of new affordable housing by reducing energy costs, improving performance and finding more efficient and sustainable ways of constructing new structures, says architect Bill Semple, the consultant who worked on the proposal with members of the band council and the community. “We’re going from standard 2×6 beams, R40 insulation and fiberglass  batting to net zero buildings,” says Semple, a former CMHC official and a member of the Indigenous Task Force of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada.

In its Smart City Plan proposal, the Cree Nation of Eastmain pledged to construct quality, energy-efficient homes that are affordable for its members, including an inventory of single-family homes, an Accessible House and Multi-Client Six-Plexes.

He stresses that the proposal reflects a sustained engagement effort that began with a canvas of the community’s elders and ultimately resulted in “culturally sustainable” design elements. The five proposed six-plex apartments evoke a long house structure and feature communal spaces as well as areas set aside for older residents. They are also oriented along an east-west axis, to reflect the movement of the sun. Five proposed single-family dwellings will have similar features. “The cultural sustainability is huge because all the members of the community are going through the healing process which is trying to address the legacy of colonialism and residential schools,” says Semple, who notes that most reserve housing in Canada’s north has failed to reflect Indigenous concepts of space.

Beyond the architectural particulars, Eastmain’s plan also pivots on a focused skilled trades training program that will enable Eastmain residents to construct these structures as well as fit them out with the specialized HVAC equipment, solar panels and smart sensors that will deliver the net zero energy performance.

While Eastman was selected as a finalist in the Smart City competition, it didn’t win. But Semple says the community is now actively looking to secure long-term funding to replace the $5 million it hoped to secure through the competition. Some funds have been earmarked, however. Construction on the first of the proposed structures, an accessible home, will begin this summer, with the second phase proposed for 2020.

Long-standing Deficiencies

In some ways, Eastmain’s story reflects the long-standing frustrations that the residents of many northern Indigenous communities have faced in their attempts to confront profoundly substandard and inappropriate housing. Yet it also reveals an important and perhaps historic shift that’s taking place in many locales across Canada, from the most isolated communities in the north to some of the most urbanized spots in the urban south.

Due to a confluence of factors, many but not all of which trace back to the 94 calls to action in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report (TRC), there appears to be a surge of interest in Indigenous design and planning approaches, a shift that some practitioners also attribute to the 2015 establishment of the RAIC’s Indigenous Task Force. Its members provide informal advice on incorporating Indigenous design approaches to a range of projects. “We’re finding that governments, universities, developers and construction companies are going to the RAIC website and phone us,” says Patrick Stewart, who chairs the 16-person group and practices in Chilliwack, B.C. He also points to a recent vote by the members of the Architectural Institute of B.C. to adopt several motions calling on the profession to address the TRC, making it the first provincial body to take that step. “We have a growing momentum and there are a lot of things we get involved in.”

Besides the housing, school and culture/community centre projects that have long been developed by First Nations communities, much of the most recent investment has flowed from government agencies and post-secondary institutions seeking to “Indigenize” campus spaces and create amenities for Indigenous students and faculty in response to the TRC’s various recommendations aimed at the justice and education systems. The symbolic capstone of this wave is Unceded: Voices of the Land, Canada’s first ever Indigenous submission to the Venice Architecture Biennale. The project was created for the 2018 event by Douglas Cardinal and co-curated by artist Gerald McMaster and Laurentian University’s recently appointed architecture faculty director David Fortin, who describes the multi-media undertaking as a “challenge to conventional notions of spatial understanding.”


Beyond such marquis commissions, Indigenous architects point to a growing number of examples of non-Indigenous development projects that consciously embody Indigenous design (e.g., non-linear or circular meeting spaces, extensive use of wood, and symbolic details) or reflect the low-emission principles that have become increasingly commonplace as climate change concerns crest.

“It seems to me that the mainstream is coming closer to how we saw the world for 30,000 years,” comments Brian Porter, principal of Two Row Architect, which is based in Six Nations of the Grand River. He cites KPMB’s Manitoba Hydro Place project in downtown Winnipeg, an office tower that features vertical shafts for ventilation and heat rise. Porter says his firm is now in negotiation with a Toronto-area residential developer about creating a subdivision that includes more communal spaces and renewable energy features. “Mainstream consumers will be ready to try a different model,” he predicts. “There’s a focus on sustainability and aligning [design] with natural forces instead of the focus on commanding the land.”

Calvin Brook, principal of Brook McIlroy, adds that some high profile corporate clients are also looking to incorporate Indigenous design elements to “start the process of truth and reconciliation.” He cites Ivanhoe Cambridge’s new CIBC Square project, a soaring tower that will straddle a railway embankment in the heart of Toronto’s financial core. Its corporate boardroom reflects Indigenous design principles and materials, and has been stewarded by Brook McIlroy’s six-person Indigenous Design Studio team, which is led by Ryan Gorrie, a Winnipeg-based architect. “It’s obviously not enough, but it is helpful to have spaces where cultural training can happen.”

Commissions Making Change

Universities and college administrators, especially those serving significant cohorts of Indigenous students, have been among the most active clients in commissioning new projects for campuses in recent years.  Brook says his firm’s Indigenous Design Studio has worked on undertakings for several, including Mohawk College, Algonquin College and Humber College, as well as the universities of Toronto, Winnipeg and Manitoba. Some are place-making installations, such as outdoor gathering spaces featuring structural elements, seating and landscaping. Others involve details as commonplace as signage: at Laurentian, where a tenth of the students are Indigenous, campus way-finding is now trilingual.

“A visual identity is what those projects are about,” says Brook, noting that many of these commissions tend to be relatively inexpensive, are often funded by donors, and, in the case of purpose-built spaces, prove to be highly popular for a range of uses, from hang-out zones to formal ceremonies and corporate events.

Porter cites one of his firm’s recent campus commissions: an Indigenous student services space at Seneca College, called Odeyto, and designed in partnership with Gow Hastings. Meant to serve as a “home away from home,” the $2.8 million facility, which opened last year, repurposed an 1,800-sq.-ft former classroom space into a cluster of offices and computer labs, as well as a kitchen and dedicated areas for Indigenous elders. As with many such ventures, this project embodied the outcome of intensive consultations with those who will use the spaces, as well as community elders.

One of the findings, Porter explains, is that college can be seen, symbolically, as a stop on life’s journey, or “odeyto” in Anishinaabe. The designers sought to express that insight by outfitting the exterior of the space with a structure meant to evoke a canoe tipped on its side. The interior features 28 curved wooden ribs, an evocation of both the canoe’s structure as well as the number of days in the lunar calendar. It is aligned along an east-west axis to acknowledge the movement of the sun, with red doors at either end to remind visitors of the legacy of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The exterior cladding is variegated corrugated metal. Porter says the use of inexpensive materials in Indigenous design reflects the process of taking something commonplace and adding value to it.

Other commissions are as much about Indigenous-inflected consultation processes as specific design elements. Porter mentions other campus projects – at Ryerson University and Ontario Institute for Studies in Education – that aim to humanize some of the Brutalist structures that sprang up on campuses through the 1960s. One involves opening up a corner of Ryerson’s library. Part of the design process involved Two Row setting up a booth on one of the campus’s thoroughfares to solicit feedback from students. That approach quickly generated 1,200 responses on feedback cards, and has informed Porter’s goal of bringing light into a forbidding and fortress-like space. “One of the ideas we’ve tried to bring is that architecture shouldn’t be anonymous,” he says.

It’s important to note, of course, that these kinds of projects, because they involve large public institutions in large population centres with the infrastructure required for complex development projects, still represent the low-hanging fruit of Indigenous-focused design and development, including the sort of net zero or low-carbon projects that many municipalities now encourage.

Some impediments are subtle. For example, LEED or other sustainability standards reward urbanized amenities, such as the presence of bicycle racks, but fall silent when it comes to developments that aspire to generate local economic development, engage elders, or foster capacity building, as is the case with remote Indigenous projects. In other cases, says Eladia Smoke, a principal at Smoke Architecture, communities using Federal funds for projects may want to incorporate local materials, especially timber, in projects. The catch-22 is that those supplies, because they aren’t always certified as sustainable, don’t pass muster with the National Building Code. “It means you can’t source locally,” she says.

For more remote communities looking to replace substandard housing, the absence of construction and skills infrastructure remains a huge obstacle, says Kim Walton, principal at Bow Crow Design, in the foothills community of Sundre, Alta. Rather than one-offs or pre-assembled dwellings hauled in by trailer at great expense, she says it would be far more effective to transport basic building materials to modest workshop/warehouses situated in remote communities. There, they could be assembled into pre-assembled components that can be stored in dry locations to prevent moisture infiltration at the front end of the construction process. Walton points to one facility, in Invermere, a community near the Alberta-B.C. border which has a workshop space with basic tools for sawing and blowing insulation. “Setting up that 40 by 60-foot shop isn’t a big deal,” she says. “That’s the missing piece.”

In Eastmain, this kind of facility was a key piece of the housing and capacity-building proposal submitted to the Smart City challenge. It will almost certainly continue to figure in the community’s bid to secure new sources of funding from other sources. Bill Semple says that despite Eastmain’s limited resources, its residents remain determined to realize on the grassroots vision and design process that culminated with its ambitious application to Federal officials. “The community is still very much behind the project,” he says. “They want to move ahead.”

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