State of the Nation: The North

The Indigenous population is Canada’s fastest growing demographic, with some 1.6 million Indigenous people in the 2016 census, and an anticipated growth to over 2.5 million by 2038. Statistics Canada says that two factors have contributed to this explosion: high fertility rates, but also a greater confidence that is causing more people to identify themselves as First Nations, Métis, or Inuit on the census.

What’s indisputable is that it’s a demographic in need of better architecture, starting from the basic level of housing. One in five Indigenous people lived in a dwelling in need of major repair in 2016, including nearly a third of Inuit living in Inuit Nunangat and almost half of Status First Nations people living on reserves. Close to one fifth of the Indigenous population lived in crowded housing, with a shortfall of bedrooms.

Jack Kobayashi, of Whitehorse-based Kobayashi + Zedda Architects, notes that the housing sector in Northern Canada has been extremely busy in the past five years. “At this time, we are designing residential projects that comprise the entire continuum of housing, including homeless shelters, tiny homes, rental apartments, market condos, seniors’ housing and extended care facilities,” says Kobayashi. To address the severe shortage of housing in Whitehorse, the firm has also developed its own construction arm, 360 Design Build, which has completed several projects, including, most recently, a 14-unit building with micro-sized apartments.

Kobayashi + Zedda Architects designed the 17-unit Inuvik Singles complex to meet the needs of a growing demographic in the community. Photo by Andrew Latreille

Funding for the majority of Northern projects ultimately comes from federal coffers. “While much of the federal subsidies have been devolved over the years through local government, First Nation governments and First Nation Development Corporations, all paths lead back to the Federal Government,” says Kobayashi. Unfortunately, Ottawa’s schedules don’t always align with the realities of Northern living. “The North operates on annual government funding milestones that revolve around a March 31st year-end. Many projects start and stop on that milestone date,” he says. “This arbitrary date does not align well with the short construction season.”

Architect Bill Semple of NORDEC consulting and design echoes the need for reality checks. “There’s never enough money, and never enough housing getting built. Every year, the backlog gets bigger,” he says. Often, funding is year-to-year, or over a couple of years at most. The lack of long-term funding makes it difficult to build capacity and to plan longer-term strategies.

On the positive side, there seems to be a willingness to develop improved processes. “The conversations between communities and the federal government is much more open now than before,” says Semple. Adds Kobayashi, “Projects coming out of the efforts of First Nation Development Corporations have been consistently rewarding. The Development Corporations operate at arms-length to the First Nations they represent, and are sufficiently nimble in their risk-taking and decision- making ability to become very good clients of architecture in the North.”

A variety of community-centred approaches are seen in the work of Yellowknife-based Taylor Architecture Group. For the Hamlet Office and Community Hall at Kugaaruk, the firm focused on using as much local labour as possible. “We did this by interviewing community members interested in working on the project, acquiring their contact information and skill levels, and then including that in the project’s specifications,” says Ksenia Eic of Taylor Architecture Group. Forty-five percent of the project was constructed by locals. Wood construction was also chosen, in order to use construction equipment already available in the community. “Usually people shy away from using local labour, as they think it will increase the cost, but the amazing thing is that the building tender price ended up being under the budget price—which is very unusual for the North.”

Local artist Alina Tungilik’s work was integrated into the Kugaaruk Hamlet Office and Community Hall, designed by Taylor Architecture Group. Photo by Christopher Oland

There is opportunity in the North for young architects intrepid enough to move there. Eic completed her student thesis looking at First Nations housing in her home province of New Brunswick, then decided to join Taylor Architectural Group as a way to pursue her interests. “Even as an intern architect, you really get thrown into the middle of things, with a variety of experiences,” she says, recalling how she was exposed to the firm’s highly varied work, from offices and schools, to community centres and arenas. “People think that you can only go to Vancouver or Toronto to find work, but you’re more likely to find an interesting experience by going somewhere more remote.”

All this is happening in the shadow of the significant impacts of the climate crisis: the Arctic is warming almost three times as fast as the rest of the world. “Since my arrival in Yukon, the average annual temperature in some northern communities with permafrost has increased by as much as 4.8 degrees,” says Kobayashi. Thawing permafrost threatens northern infrastructure, since the foundations of many buildings are dependent upon maintaining permafrost in its frozen state. (Buildings are typically raised to allow cold air to circulate over the ground.) “Much of the permafrost in Yukon is just below zero degrees Celsius, and therefore very susceptible to even slight increases in warming temperatures,” says Kobayashi.

For the Lutsel K’e Dene School, Taylor Architecture Group provided maximum transparency to connect classrooms with the outdoors and with the corridors, building trust with the community and combatting feelings of claustrophobia. Photo by Ihor Pona
Exterior of the Lutsel K’e Dene School, by Taylor Architecture Group. Photo by Ihor Pona

While there is a small contingent of registered architects in the North, some firms from southern cities have developed a long history of working with Indigenous communities, among them, Edmonton-based Manasc Isaac. “We are working more than ever with First Nations, and are developing deeper and more enduring relationships with the many First Nations and Métis communities that we work with,” says Vivian Manasc, whose current work includes a number of First Nations schools in Alberta and gathering centres at Métis Crossing (Alberta), Salt River (Northwest Territories), and Kwanlin Dün (Yukon). “Our approach is informed as much as possible by Indigenous ways of being and knowing and of relationships with the land.”

Conversations with Indigenous clients have the potential to do more than meet the challenge of providing adequate housing, as immense as that goal may already be. “First Nations have a close relationship with the land, they understand how it has inherent richness, they have spent countless generations living on it,” says Semple. “To address climate change, the very attitude they have to the land is what we need to cultivate—there is much to learn from them. It is my belief that reconciliation will be finally happening when we’re actually having two-way conversations, where we are learning from each other.”

This article is part of our State of the Nation series covering Canadian architecture region by region.