Editorial: First Nations, Front and Centre

Rendering of Arctic Adaptations: Nunavut at 15, Lateral Office's planned exhibition for the 2014 Venice Biennale.
Rendering of Arctic Adaptations: Nunavut at 15, Lateral Office’s planned exhibition for the 2014 Venice Biennale.

A recent cascade of news has put First Nations front and centre in Canadian architecture. In January, Brett MacIntyre, a Dalhousie graduate of Haida heritage, won the Canada Council for the Arts’ Prix de Rome in Architecture for Emerging Practitioners. A month later, a Governor General’s Medal in Architecture was presented to Mission Kitcisakik, an initiative to improve Anishnabe housing through developing local skills. At the end of February, the second annual First Nations Conference on Sustainable Buildings and Communities met in Edmonton. And just days ago, the curatorship of the 2014 Canadian Pavilion for the Venice Biennale was announced: Toronto-based Lateral Office will spearhead an exhibition on Nunavut.

Canadians have long been interested in traditional Native architecture, but these recent developments are marked by decidedly contemporary and practical viewpoints. The realities of housing shortages, the challenge of creating infrastructures to connect dispersed settlements, and the complexities of contemporary cultural Native identities are at the heart of the present projects.

Perhaps even more important, each project partners Native and non-Native participants. This premise of collaboration stands in contrast to a long-standing top-down approach towards First Nations communities.

An appreciation for the delicate balance between outsider and insider knowledge underlies the careful network of partners that Lateral Office has assembled for their Venice Biennale exhibition, entitled Arctic Adaptations. In commemoration of Nunavut’s 15th anniversary, project leaders Lola Sheppard and Mason White have gathered 15 collaborating groups: five university schools of architecture, five architecture offices (including their own) who have established relationships with Northern communities, and five Nunavut-based community organizations. On the heels of Arctic-themed studios planned for the fall semester, Sheppard and White will select one student from each school to develop their project for display in Venice, in collaboration with a North-savvy office and an Inuit community group.

The process entails coordination efforts going significantly beyond a typical exhibition of already completed work. Sheppard and White venture that in return, the partnerships they are fostering between diverse voices will lead to richer and better-informed results.

While southern expertise perhaps still retains the final word in Arctic Adaptations, Mission Kitcisakik focuses on community capacity-building. Architect Guillaume Lévesque of Emergency Architects Canada worked to train over a dozen locals to improve living conditions at Kitcisakik, an off-reserve community with neither running water nor electricity. The initiative galvanized support from both public and private sectors, and resulted in the renovation of some 26 homes over four years. A recent Canada Council grant will allow the Native builders, several of whom have earned construction certification through jobsite training, to travel to other First Nations communities and share their knowledge.

Easily the most poignant moment at the Governor General’s awards ceremony was Lévesque’s expression of gratitude to his Native collaborators, several of whom attended as guests. With Idle No More protests in full swing and Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike only recently ended, their presence in the Rideau Hall audience offered a powerful exemplar of how mutual respectful collaborations could result in meaningful results for individuals and First Nations communities alike.

We are still some distance from the ideal of self-sufficiency within Canada’s Aboriginal communities. First Nations remain underrepresented among professionals and in Canada’s architecture schools, and for that matter, in universities at large. However, the present initiatives are signs that two-way dialogues are opening, and architects would do well to open the door ever wider.

Elsa Lam elam@canadianarchitect.com