Indigenous

Indigenous architects say they are in high demand, and hope to recruit more students

Winnipeg is home to a small group of Indigenous architects who are blazing a trail in the industry and are hoping that more Indigenous students will join them.

'Seeing ourselves reflected in the built environment is critical for reclamation of identity... territory'

The four team members of Brook McIlroy's Indigenous Design Studio are part of a small but growing number of Indigenous architects in Canada. From left, Danielle Desjarlais, Rachelle Lemieux, Ryan Gorrie and Reanna Merasty (Submitted)

Winnipeg is home to a small group of Indigenous architects who are blazing a trail in the industry and hoping that more Indigenous students will join them.

"My goal is to be that bridge for Indigenous voices… to make sure that their opinions, feelings and thoughts are being heard and implemented into design and how we see our world and how we see our cities being built," said Danielle Desjarlais.

Desjarlais is Métis-Cree from Peguis First Nation and is a summer intern at Brook McIlroy's Indigenous Design Studio.

She just finished her pre-master's year at the University of Manitoba's Faculty of Architecture and will be going into her first year of the master's program at the university this fall.

She said over the past few years she has noticed the university become more willing to have more conversations about Indigenous design and history.

"I think that's a really big move for the university itself to begin talking about this and implementing these ideas and truth into our studio courses and all of our courses," said Desjarlais.

"I think that's changing students' mindsets and educating them about Indigenous history in a more truthful way."

Appetite for Indigenous design

The studio opened as part of Brook McIlroy's design and planning practice in 2016 and has four people working in it.

The studio's senior associate, Ryan Gorrie, is Anishinaabeg from Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek (Sand Point First Nation on Lake Nipigon). Gorrie said there has been an appetite for more Indigenous-designed projects since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report in 2015, and that there is a small but growing number of Indigenous architects hoping to put their stamp on the industry.

"There's so few of us here in Canada — there's only like 20 Indigenous architects and I think per capita there should be probably about 300," said Gorrie.

Gorrie started with the Brooks McIlroy firm in 2009 when he was hired on to help with a waterfront project in his home city of Thunder Bay.

He said Indigenous architects bring a different perspective and their designs are "incredibly open."

"Seeing ourselves reflected in the built environment is critical for reclamation of identity, space, territory, all of those things," said Gorrie.

While the number of Indigenous architects in Canada is still small, Gorrie said there are more Indigenous women taking up the profession.

"We're definitely underrepresented in the design profession but it certainly is refreshing to work with young Indigenous designers who are mostly women, which is even more exciting to have," said Gorrie.

Recruiting more students

Rachelle Lemieux, a Métis architect, and Reanna Merasty, who is in her final year of the master's program at the University of Manitoba, both work for the Indigenous Design Studio.

Merasty is Cree and grew up helping her grandfather build log cabins in Reindeer Lake, in northern Manitoba.

"I helped with stripping the bark, hauling the logs and helping him construct the cabin and I think it was just a natural thing for me to be in architecture," said Merasty.

Merasty said there are a lot of conversations happening about sustainability in design and that the values of sustainability are already ingrained in Indigenous people.

Desjarlais said it has been beneficial to have other Indigenous women like Merasty be in the same school at the same time.

"Growing up and even in university, oftentimes we're the only people in our programs and in our courses," she said.

"It's really great to have support like Reanna and Ryan just to even talk about little things like how we're feeling about certain things or getting feedback on design things and they just have that experience as an Indigenous person that I can relate to."

Desjarlais said she expects more Indigenous people will get involved in the industry in the future and that schools need to do a better job at promoting the profession at an earlier age.

About the Author

Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He is the co-founder of Red Rising Magazine and has been an associate producer with the CBC's Indigenous unit for three years. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1

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