SUDBURY — For Patrick Stewart, using architecture to create comfortable spaces for Indigenous communities, and teaching students to do the same, is a point of pride. Sitting in his bright downtown office at the McEwen School of Architecture at Laurentian University, he beams when the adjacent hall begins to hum with life as students troop in to work on final projects.
Architecture is a way for Stewart and his 14 colleagues at the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada’s (RAIC) Indigenous Task Force to represent and address the needs of Indigenous communities, and, he says, it empowers them to create spaces of their own.
Stewart, a member of B.C.’s Nisga’a Nation, is one of three RAIC members teaching at the McEwen School.
David Fortin, a member of the Métis Nation of Ontario, is working on a research project about how to define Métis architecture on the Prairies, a task made more difficult trying to apply a single definition to a diverse group.
Eladia Smoke-KaaSheGaaBaaWeak, who is Anishinabe, is studying how female Indigenous architects are represented. Both are trying to answer a fundamental question: What is does it mean to be an Indigenous architect?
Stewart and his colleagues believe traditional forms and experiences have their place in modern design. “This is trying to bring elements of the culture that have been taken away,” he says. “With the amount of violence that colonization has brought, there’s an opportunity for architecture to be able to provide a good living situation.”
This motivation is reflected in Stewart’s projects across the province of British Columbia, from a community hall for the 400-person Nisga’a village of Gingolx to buildings in Vancouver designed to create a similar feeling of familiarity for those away from home.
“Architecture has an opportunity to reinforce culture. One of the things in my work that I attempted to do was to privilege Indigenous knowledge, so looking at traditional form and trying to bring that form into today.” Stewart says. “I always take my cue from the community.”
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The federal government has committed billions of dollars to improving community infrastructure in Indigenous communities and promised to better integrate traditional knowledge, but Stewart says there needs to be less of a missionary attitude, and more Indigenous representation in all stages of the process.
“There’s now more and more people with skills and education that can lead the way,” he says. “I think the time has come that Indigenous people need to be able to do it for Indigenous communities.”
While Indigenous architecture can help to rebuild communities, issues of oppression in legal, education and medical representation are taking precedence for now. As one Nisga’a elder told Stewart: “Architecture will come.”
Nevertheless, Stewart is optimistic about the potential for architecture to engage communities and give individuals a sense of ownership. “It’s amazing when you work in communities. Quite often people don’t know what to expect when we get together, and if we’re designing a building they’ll say, ‘Well, what do we know?’” Stewart says. “I always say all we need is one good idea and we can build on it. And it snowballs, and it’s amazing. We’re building on ideas, and it’s very powerful. People leave energized, and they have hope. There’s a future that way.”
This article is adapted from a version that appeared in “Indigenous Land, Urban Stories,” a project by master’s students at the Ryerson School of Journalism, with support from Journalists for Human Rights.
Amanda Short is a Master of Journalism student at Ryerson University.
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