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How growing up in foster care shaped Nisga'a architect Patrick Stewart's work

Patrick Stewart developed a love of architecture early in life. “When I was five, it was a different time and I could walk to kindergarten and walk the city streets," Stewart said. "I would go out of my way to look at particular buildings."
Nisga'a architect Patrick Stewart has had a long journey to get to be where he's at today, but his love of architecture and design has been there the entire time. (www.patrickstewartarchitect.com/)

This segment originally aired on April 4, 2021.

Patrick Stewart developed a love of architecture early in life.

"When I was five, it was a different time and I could walk to kindergarten and walk the city streets," Stewart said. "I would go out of my way to look at particular buildings."

Stewart, who is Nisga'a, grew up in foster care and moved around a lot as a youth. He struggled in school, and was often the only Indigenous person in his classes.

When Stewart was in high school year, he wondered about pursuing architecture in a post-secondary setting. 

At the same time, Stewart's home life took a turn for the worse. It affected his education, as he was skipping classes and not completing assignments.

"That's why I really didn't do well in the end," Stewart said. "But I also didn't have anybody to really counsel me and say, you know, 'smarten up.'"

Patrick Stewart was taken into care when he was a baby at St. Paul's Hospital. He moved around a lot when he was younger. (Patrick Stewart)

Despite his struggles, Stewart managed to graduate high school and was accepted into a bachelor's degree program at Simon Fraser University (SFU). 

The university didn't have an architecture program, but Stewart still had hope."I can still get to architecture, I bet you I can," he remembers telling himself.

Stewart had aged out of care by then, and he found himself on his own. He knew that if he wanted to pursue his dream of working as an architect, he would have to do it alone. 

He knew he needed to prove his math skills, so he signed up for a calculus course at SFU. Patrick got 96 per cent on his midterm, and it helped him realize that his dream was within reach. 

"I thought, 'Hey, I can do this,'" said Stewart. 

Having more confidence, Patrick applied to the Technical University of Nova Scotia, now Dalhousie University, to study architecture. He wasn't accepted to the program but was told to reapply when he completed his degree at SFU. Stewart did, and he was accepted.

"I just still remember the day that I walked up to that school and the feeling of walking up those big stone steps and thinking, 'Hey, I made it,'" recalled Stewart. 

Full circle

Stewart went on to complete a Masters of Architecture degree at McGill University, and a PhD from the University of British Columbia. He also founded his own architectural firm, Patrick R. Stewart Architect. 

In his practice, Stewart incorporates Indigenous design principles and Indigenous knowledge. 

"The idea that we could still design buildings based on community histories is something that I was really interested in because the culture was still there," said Stewart. 

The idea that we could still design buildings based on community histories is something that I was really interested in because the culture was still there.- Patrick Stewart

As a Nisga'a person who grew up in care, Stewart's life came full circle when he was selected as the architect to design the Dave Pranteau Aboriginal Children's Village in Vancouver. The building is a living space for Indigenous children and youth in care. 

The Aboriginal Children's Village includes spaces for ceremony, a garage for carving, and suites for youth who age out of care where they can learn independent living and access support. 

"The intent of the design was to emphasize the village," said Stewart. 

Projects like the Aboriginal Children's Village are close to Stewart's heart, and he designs them with the insights that come from growing up in the foster care system.

For Stewart, building these spaces provides "a way of Indigenization, maybe not a way of decolonization, but in the end, it is a way that empowers First Nations." 

Stewart said that there are less than 20 Indigenous architects in all of Canada. He hopes that will change soon.

"Schools of architecture now are starting to think about things Indigenous, and I think there is a great future in architecture for Indigenous students."

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