“Keekagin, the thing you look for to steer when you are lost”: Healing and Building at Barriere Lake

Three CCA Master's Students Program participants report on the final instalment of In the Postcolony, a three-year thematic series.

For the third and final instalment of In the Postcolony, a three-year thematic series facilitated through the CCA Master’s Students Program, we undertook a collaborative research project with community members of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake First Nation and Shiri Pasternak, ally of Barriere Lake and a faculty member in Criminology at Toronto Metropolitan University. The research responds to the community’s current initiative to build a multipurpose healing centre on their territory. The community lives on a fifty-nine-acre reserve roughly three hours north of Ottawa, in what is now known as the Outaouais region of Quebec, though their traditional territories extend for seventeen thousand square kilometres.

We engaged in background research about the Barriere Lake community, traditional land-based healing practices, and outreach including site visits to several established healing centres. The project culminated with a visit to the site of Barriere Lake’s future healing centre and a meeting with community members involved in its construction and programming. During our visit, we collected footage for a short film intended to document the current state of the healing centre and the conditions of the land on which it will exist. The film resides within an open-access Google Drive created to archive research about the healing centre project and to help structure the community’s future funding applications.

Film still from Keekagin, a short film produced by the CCA Master’s Students. From left to right: Kelley Bird-Naytowhow, Norman Matchewan, and Cindy Deschenes of the Barriere Lake community describing the land-based healing approach


Healing lodges exist as both designed spaces and as a means to meet the programmatic and spiritual needs of Indigenous offenders as they transition back onto their land. The concept of the healing lodge was introduced in 1990 by the Native Women’s Association of Canada as an extension of the Canadian justice system, prompted by Indigenous over-incarceration and by the absence of Indigenous programming and access to ceremonial practice in prisons. The inception of healing lodges into the federal correctional system represented a step toward recognizing Indigenous law—legal forms of understanding territory and customs which existed long before the arrival of settlers to Canada. Healing lodges were also meant to foster a stronger relationship between Correctional Service Canada (CSC) and Indigenous communities who would provide input on the design of the facilities and help to deliver programs and teachings to Indigenous offenders. Though CSC ultimately retains control over the design and management of their facilities, the healing lodge nonetheless acts as a nexus for expanded Indigenous sovereignty over land and cultural traditions. The Indigenous healing lodge can be considered as an architecture asserting claims of jurisdiction over domains of justice, health, education, and the land itself.

Keekagin is a multipurpose, multi-sited healing centre in the process of being built to support the Mitchikanibikok Inik/Algonquins of Barriere Lake First Nation. Keekagin, which translates from Anishnaabemowin as “the thing you look for to steer when you are lost,” will support community members recently released from prison to transition back onto the land or await placement in long-term treatment centres while providing land-based education to youth and families. Compounding the mental health crises taking place within the community is the lack of funding available to supply basic infrastructure for the healing centre.

The Algonquins of Barriere Lake have a long history of independent governance, having opposed the Canadian government’s Comprehensive Land Claims Policy in favour of the Trilateral Agreement, a policy instituting co-management of the land without extinguishing Indigenous rights to the territory. The healing centre at Barriere Lake therefore positions itself as external to Canadian state governance and CSC affiliation, being self-built, managed, and maintained to establish an affirmative future for their community and land. Built on the unceded family territory of Michen and Maggie Wawatie on an island outside of the Rapid Lake reserve, the siting of the healing centre rejects the alienation imposed on the Barriere Lake community caused by ongoing processes of colonial dispossession, encroachment, and resource extraction. The choice to place the site off-reserve is fundamental for the community to extend their claims to territorial sovereignty while providing a space for healing that is free of distractions from everyday life on the reserve.

Last summer, one of the two cabins that had been built on the site burned to the ground. This setback delayed the construction process and has hindered further funding support for the project. This summer, following Elder Maggie Wawatie’s guidance, the site was cleared of burnt wood and brush, and platforms were levelled and built in a radial arrangement surrounding the remaining cabin. We had the opportunity to visit the Barriere Lake community in August and arrived in time to see the first platform for the prospector tents being constructed on the site. The community currently has plans to erect five prospector tents to house residents of the healing centre and to complete construction on the existing cabin for use as a communal kitchen as a first step toward providing shelter for residents of the healing centre. Future plans include building a sweat lodge and a teepee for one-on-one healing sessions, clearing a walking path through the forest, and rebuilding the second cabin to host communal workshops and health services.

Film still from Keekagin, a short film produced by the CCA Master’s Students. Norman Matchewan describes his hopes for the healing centre project as band councillor of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake First Nation.


In designing programs with healing and care in mind, the Barriere Lake community hopes to integrate what they learned from hosting a former educational program across their traditional family territories throughout the 1990s. The “Summer Remedial Program” offered a means to pass down traditional land-based knowledge to youth in the community alongside curriculum from the provincial education system. This multi-sited educational approach to programming prefaces all stages of the healing process with teachings from the land and honours the tradition of preserving and protecting the landscape from overuse by seasonally alternating between sites.

As non-Indigenous scholars within the disciplines of architecture and urban planning, we acknowledged the limits of our participation and risks of academicizing the research in a way that would further idealize Western knowledge over Indigenous knowledge. Our aim was to produce something practical and useful while preserving the autonomy and voice of the community leaders. The pragmatic approach of creating an output for our research that primarily supports the Barriere Lake healing centre project, along with our decision to create a short film emphasizing the community’s oral traditions, supports Indigenous resurgence by offering standalone tools that exist external to the CCA as an institution. After a week-long visit to Rapid Lake, we determined that the best output for our research would be to produce an open-access Google Drive which would house the short film about the healing lodge as the entry point for those accessing the Drive for the first time or for individuals hoping to learn more about the healing centre project, followed by an archive for funding materials. With Norman’s permission, we produced footage and sound clips of Keekagin during our visit to Rapid Lake and recorded conversations about the current phase of construction being undertaken by the community. We hoped that we could provide a means to express the current state of the healing centre and the land it is situated upon to better understand the nuances of the building project and what it represents for the community. 

The Barriere Lake Multipurpose Healing Centre Open-Access Google Drive currently provides an archive of past funding applications, an intake form to track requests to take on clients, audio and visual media of the current state of the healing lodge, and the short film. A user guide provides readers with a map of the folder structure, and instructions for using the Drive. Ownership of the Drive will be passed on to Norman Matchewan, Shiri Pasternak, and any other community members or allies that wish to participate. We hope the information contained within the shared Google Drive will be useful as a precedent for other Indigenous communities that wish to establish spaces for healing on their own territories.

As the three-year thematic cycle of In the Postcolony comes to a close, we propose to position this project and the immense efforts of the Barriere Lake community to materialize a healing centre on their territory as a prompt to continue conversations surrounding the effects of spatial and territorial dispossession activated by settler colonial pursuits.

Film still from Keekagin, a short film produced by the CCA Master’s Students. Norman Matchewan describes the work ahead on the community’s healing centre project alongside footage of one of the first prospector tent platforms being built.


A version of this text, and the film, have been published on the CCA website.