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How 'community-driven' Indigenous architecture is transforming space

For many generations, buildings were designed and built without the consultation or integration of the Indigenous communities they reside in. From residential schools to housing to rinks to community centres, few buildings reflected community values.
Assistant Professor David Fortin has been named the new director of Laurentian University's McEwen School of Architecture. He will take over from current director Terrance Galvin in January 2018. (Samantha Samson/CBC News)

A colleague of Métis architect David Fortin's once said something that has stuck with him: "Nothing about us without us."

For many generations, buildings were designed and built without the consultation or integration of the Indigenous communities they reside in. From residential schools, to housing, to rinks, to community centres, few buildings reflected community values.

But David Fortin, the director of the McEwen School of Architecture at Laurentian University, said that seems to be changing into a more Indigenous-led and co-designed landscape.

"Indigenous people are in a great position right now to expect more of the built environment and to challenge their architects and their builders to work toward expressing those values again," Fortin said.

Indigenous people are also in a great position to work to become architects themselves, Fortin added.

By his count, there are fewer than 20 Indigenous architects in Canada. Out of around 10,000, that's only 0.2 per cent. But through his work as co-curator of UNCEDED: Voices of the Land, he had around 15 aspiring Indigenous architects reach out to him. Fortin said he thinks they're starting to make the career option known and accessible to Indigenous youth.

"[It's] still very slow-moving, but I definitely think this is something that Indigenous youth are excited about and that's really what we're excited about," Fortin said.

Fortin has seen the difference collaboration can make in a community. Patrick Stewart, an architect from the Nisga'a Nation, designed a building for a First Nation in British Columbia. Fortin said in consultations, the community members wanted Stewart to put a fire in the lobby.

Due to budget constraints, Stewart couldn't make that happen — so instead, he put stones in a circle with an orange-coloured stone in the middle to represent that fire.

"He's heard that elders will sit around those because somebody listened," Fortin said. "Whenever you have communities that see themselves … it again just reaffirms things and it becomes something that's manifested."

Another architect, Jake Chakasim, has worked on using bent wood construction in contemporary designs — while others, like Indigenous architect pioneer Douglas Cardinal, have worked on integrating land and the elements into contemporary buildings.

Weypisosiweywin I is a structure created by Jake Chakasim constructed in Nipissing First Nation, Ontario, 2014. It is part of a triology of structures designed by Chakasim, one of the architects involved with Unceded: Voices of the Land. (Supplied by Jake Chakasim)

Fortin said it's one thing for a building to be designed with the community in mind, but once the structure is built, the structures and designs within the building itself are often colonial.

With so few Indigenous architects, it's more important than ever that communities are involved in design from start to finish — and to be wary of pan-Indigenous work.

"The idea is that communities across Canada — from the north and all directions — each community can have its own expression based on their traditions and their aspirations," Fortin said.

"We don't [want to] get trapped into this idea that there's one design that should satisfy everybody … it can really be community-driven."

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