‘Houses as living organisms’: Making architecture that works for Indigenous communities

TVO.org speaks with Métis architect and Laurentian University professor David Fortin about how poorly designed homes disrupt Indigenous ways of life
By Daniel Kitts - Published on Jun 25, 2021
David Fortin is the director of Laurentian University's McEwen School of Architecture. (David Fortin)



In honour of National Indigenous People’s Day this week, TVO highlighted Indigenous contributions to modern architecture.

A conversation on The Agenda featuring renowned Anishinaabe architect Douglas Cardinal led into the broadcast premiere of From Earth to Sky, a TVO Original documentary profiling the work of Cardinal and other Indigenous architects.

Both programs focused in large part on how these architects are bringing Indigenous concepts of collaboration, sustainability, and respect for the land to their field.

But another element touched on in these conversations is how conventional architecture has often failed Indigenous people. Remote and northern communities, for example, often have to contend with shoddy buildings that don’t adequately take into account local conditions or Indigenous culture.

To get a better sense of how conventional architecture can harm Indigenous communities and what’s being done to fix that, TVO.org spoke to David Fortin, director of the McEwen School of Architecture at Laurentian University. A member of the Métis Nation of Ontario, Fortin is a part of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Indigenous Task Force.

A man filming in The Agenda studio

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TVO.org: When architects began to design buildings for Indigenous communities in the 20th century, their designs were often based on homes and structures in Canada’s southern cities. What sorts of problems did that cause in remote in northern communities?

David Fortin: Usually, when we start talking about these things, where things have gone the most wrong are with housing.

I like to think about houses as kind of living organisms. They have a lifeline of their own. Think about a house in a city like where I’m sitting. What does this house need to survive? It needs a reliable sewer system. It needs a way to get clean water, have power connections, have a road that is reliable. We also need access to home-hardware stores or electricians, when we need them. If our furnace goes down in the winter, we can call somebody to come fix it.

If you think of the house as a plant, and you literally rip it out from its lifelines, you rip it out from its roots. For Indigenous people, particularly in remote northern communities, it’s a different kind of life. It’s an entirely different economic system; it’s an entirely different system for water and access to all those other things. So it was doomed to fail.

TVO.org: What are some specific examples of house design that made perfect sense in a Canadian city context but made little sense for life in a northern Indigenous community?

Fortin: There are cases in the north where they built in bathtubs into communities that had no running water, so they became storage rooms.

When I was in Alberta, one elderly woman was saying that she remembers, with her previous house, they could almost never open the door, because every time there was a snowstorm, the snow banks would build up right against the front door — because nobody really thought about the orientation of the house related to the environment.

You hear all these different stories of how people appropriated, like, the porch area for harvesting meat. What you find is that, in a lot of remote northern communities, they have to adapt this kind of alien object that they’ve been told to live in, to try to suit their lifestyle.

TVO.org: I’ve heard that multi-storey structures didn’t work for some Indigenous communities, since people were accustomed to living close to the land. What else haven’t non-Indigenous architects taken into account?

Fortin: The big one for me, and I’ve written a little bit about this, is what I call the imposition of privacy. For non-Indigenous people, when they ran into igloos or teepees or longhouses, the idea of families sleeping in the same bed was almost considered taboo. That should be an intimate space [from the European perspective].

I was explaining this to Maria Campbell. She’s the author of Halfbreed. And she’s a really amazing person and a Métis Elder. And she was talking about the one-room house that she remembers growing up in. The grandmothers used to sleep at the door, and if the men had been out and had a few drinks, they weren’t allowed in the house. And the women and the children were always kind of protected in this kind of unit. All of a sudden, when you can close the door and lock the door and do things within the house, and there’s not always a set of eyes on children, some bad things can happen. It’s kind of amazing when you look at the structure of a home and think that it can affect people.

TVO.org: That’s very interesting. Growing up in the context I did, I would find that lack of privacy incredibly stressful. I would just assume, as the architects assumed, that everybody would want some privacy.

Fortin: I’ve had this conversation with so many Indigenous communities since we did that research. And the reality is, nowadays, I don’t know how many communities would want to ever go back [to less privacy]. That’s just the reality. That kind of disturbance has taken place. It’s not like, nowadays, people on reserve are hoping to have a one-room house.

TVO.org: Let’s talk about the present. What’s being done by architects such as yourself to design more appropriate homes for northern and remote communities?

Fortin: We’re working with a community in Alberta right now. What we’ve done there is orient all the houses to the south to give them the right slope to get some solar gain into those homes. In a sense, the houses ignore the road, they ignore the property lines, and they are welcoming the sun into them. And we said, well, why should everyone have their own driveway? We could share. So instead of thinking of the property line as a divider, we’re thinking about it as something to bring people together. And they wanted fencing, but we’ve tossed out ideas such as planting berries there, for instance. Rather than separating families, it would be an opportunity to bring families together on the property line.

The other thing is just the idea of literally spending the time. I ran a project with the National Research Council, where I worked with four remote northern communities and four Indigenous architects who have lived experience similar to those regions. The program was a three-to-four-day visit to the community to figure out the rhythms of the place, look at how people live, then go away and design. And then go back again, spend time in the community again, get more feedback. Just engaging and slowing things down and treating the houses as something worthy of the time commitment from a designer to listen.

TVO.org: Are there any particularly outstanding projects in Canada that come to mind in terms of housing design for Indigenous communities?

Fortin: There’s not a long list. I would say to connect back to the film that you’re referencing, I always want to honor our elder Douglas Cardinal, because he really was a groundbreaker for so many of us. The community plan that he did for Oujé-Bougoumou, in Québec, is quite a story. If I look back at all these things I’m talking about, Douglas was on that, decades ago, spending time with the community, listening to the community’s needs, and then designing a community off of that.

Rendering of the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute, in Oujé-Bougoumou, Quebec, designed by Douglas Cardinal and Figurr Architects Collective. (Wikipedia/Charny)

TVO.org: By and large, do you think the architectural community has learned from its past mistakes when it comes to serving Indigenous communities? Or do Indigenous communities still have to contend with bad design?

Fortin: We’re still not out of the woods yet. I see a lot of collaboration. I think that’s definitely a positive step forward.

There’s a lot of investment right now in housing, and everybody knows that the federal government is committed, which is great. But there are big dollar amounts. So you have people that are trying to figure out how they can design a system that can address the problem, but certainly [profit] themselves as well. And that can’t be the priority. Sometimes I worry about a situation where we have non-Indigenous companies that just fall into the same trap of the trailer parks that were flown up [north] or the Sears houses, or whatever they were. It just would be a modern version of that. That’s still going to be a challenge.

I think we’re on the right track. We’ve got a lot of young Indigenous people interested in architecture, design, and construction. So as that capacity builds, it’s only going to get better.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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