Working with Indigenous Architects and Indigenous Procurement Requirements

Developing professional responsibility and awareness when working with Indigenous communities requires intent as well as follow-through. Providing a high level of service means understanding how to meaningfully build a project with an Indigenous community, not for them.

TEXT Elsa Lam with Kelly Edzerza-Bapty, Dr. David Fortin, Tiffany Shaw, Dr. Patrick Stewart, and Alfred Waugh

In the past few years, there has been an increasing awareness of the imperative for Indigenous involvement on major public architecture projects, whether their program directly serves Indigenous Peoples or not. This reflects the concept that Indigenous architects and designers—as well as the Indigenous Peoples that live both on reserves as well as throughout other urban, rural, and northern regions in Canada—are equity-deserving as a community that has experienced barriers to equal access, opportunities, and resources due to disadvantage, discrimination, and racism. Most commonly, this takes the form of a requirement on calls for proposals for an Indigenous consultant to be part of design teams. But as any firm who has responded to such RFPs knows, there are few Indigenous architects in Canada, and involving Indigenous community members directly requires thoughtful strategies.

What are some guiding principles to approaching an Indigenous architect, Elder, Knowledge Keeper or community member to be part of a team? What do non-Indigenous architects and consultant teams need to know about designing and/or building with Indigenous architects and communities? We asked five of Canada’s licensed Indigenous architects—Kelly Edzerza-Bapty, Dr. David Fortin, Tiffany Shaw, Dr. Patrick Stewart, and Alfred Waugh—for their advice. Here’s what they shared with us.

Intent and Awareness

In choosing to bid on a project that serves First Nations, Métis and/or Inuit communities, the intentions of the non-Indigenous architects carry increased importance. Why are you interested in doing this project? Why are you interested in working with an Indigenous architect? To what extent is this interest oriented towards building up your firm and your portfolio, versus towards increasing the capacity or prospects for the community?

When working with an Indigenous community—or, indeed, any equity-deserving group—it is important for individual non-Indigenous architects and teams to reflect on their self-interest, as well as on their current and future place within a larger community of practice. Having a non-Indigenous architect leading a project may be perceived by an Indigenous community as a limitation to see themselves reflected on the design team and in the built project. How can a design team
acknowledge this difficulty, as well as their own biases? What do they bring to the project that can add to the empowerment and agency of Indigenous architects and community?

Self-awareness is important when seeking Indigenous knowledge. Tiffany Shaw recalls attending the RAIC’s first International Indigenous Design Symposium in 2017 and looking forward to learning and sharing knowledge with other Indigenous practitioners: but then feeling overwhelmed by the number of non-Indigenous attendees. “You could sense the hunger for Indigenous knowledge,” she recalls. While some of this interest seemed to come from a genuine desire to learn and understand, she felt an undercurrent of others interested in extracting Indigenous knowledge for their own use, while leaving the Indigenous designers and community members behind.

“Considering your intentions in the first place should be part of any project,” says Shaw. But, she notes, it’s especially important when designing for an Indigenous community or other equity-deserving group.

Transparency and Sharing

When partnering with an Indigenous architect, says Dr. David Fortin, “there needs to be a clarity about roles and associated fees.” He adds, “these need to be transparently talked about.” Often, involving an Indigenous architect is seen as ticking a box, rather than bringing them fully into the design process. This is where equity must exist to understand what an Indigenous partner can deliver, without sidelining them to a marginal position.

While much depends on the project and on the individual, it is important to consider roles. For instance, an Indigenous architect may be glad to be involved in community engagement, and may even specialize in this front-end part of the work. On the other hand, Fortin says, “Indigenous architects aren’t necessarily interested in always being the community engagement sub-consultant—they’re architects, and they want to be designing buildings as they are trained to do.”

Some larger non-Indigenous-owned and -operated architectural firms are beginning to build their own internal Indigenous design studios, through partnerships with universities and mentorship programs that pull Indigenous students into their firms. “It can provide an invaluable learning experience for young interns,” says Fortin, “but it’s complex.” There’s an added need for firms pursuing such a path to be transparent with their recruits about the risks, rewards, expectations, and opportunities that come from such offers. In any firm, Indigenous architects, designers, and interns must be provided with opportunities and equity in accordance with the additional knowledge that they bring into their project work. “Indigenous graduates and interns are hired for their knowledge of the Indigenous world as well as for their architectural skills for which they have been trained,” says Stewart. “It’s an added plus for the firm to benefit from the intern’s Indigenous knowledge, and they must fairly compensate for this cultural knowledge.” 

Indigenous students can often face unseen barriers or lack resources compared to their non-Indigenous colleagues, requiring more supports. When employing Indigenous design students, how might a firm invest in that student’s future, both during and after their employment? Does that firm have a policy on equity? There is much to be done, and the RAIC’s Indigenous Task Force has been working to support its Indigenous members in these areas.


Community engagement should also be seen through an equity lens. Authentic engagement can be empowering to Indigenous communities and other equity-deserving groups. This kind of engagement can result not only in projects that are well-fitted to community needs, but that benefit from a deeply rooted sense of ownership for the community.

Engagement needs to follow the community’s lead in terms of participation, time and expectations, and any relevant cultural protocols. The designers need to consider with whom they are engaging,
they are doing it, what they are asking, and how they will work with the knowledge gained. Sensitivity and consideration are required at all stages of this process. Is your engagement approach accessible to those you are inviting to come? Logistics such as transportation or childcare access may be barriers for those who want to participate in the design process.

Engagement may involve the sharing of stories that are entrusted to the designers. Offering equitable honorariums to those involved in the engagement process is one way to acknowledge the value of such sharing, as well as one of many ways to create equity for community members. Most importantly, says Kelly Edzerza-Bapty, “knowledge shared and gained in the engagement process needs to be translated into the design work for it to be meaningful.”

Engagement processes are often seen as restricted to the beginning stages of a project, but architecture is a complex endeavour and community guidance may be helpful at multiple stages of a project. How can engagement processes continue through to the end of a project, or even beyond? Does the architectural firm hire a local Indigenous community member to be part of the design team?

Professional Responsibility

Designs for buildings on reserves were once reviewed by the federal government, but that process has since been removed. Many Nations do not have the infrastructure for an Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), which limits their capacity for internal oversight. The puts an added onus on architects, says Alfred Waugh, “to be responsible to your profession, have the respect that some of these Nations don’t have that infrastructure in place, protect the public good, and make sure your sub-consultants do the same.”

When designing for Indigenous communities on remote sites, architects have an added responsibility to ensure that their design is informed by an understanding of access, local climate, operations, and maintenance requirements. For example, specifying a mechanical system for a remote community that will require maintenance personnel to fly-in to the community is probably not the most cost-effective solution. One strategy, says Edzerza-Bapty, is “creating passive rather than active systems,” and “leaning into operational and maintenance strategies and processes that can help ensure the long-term success of the building.”

Patrick Stewart says that he often recommends that communities hire a third-party to review his work, such as a Certified Professional Code Consultant or building inspector. To create further oversight, he’s helped clients put out a call for proposals, so that the third-party is chosen in way that is free from the designer’s biases. “It gives me some satisfaction that I’m looking after my client,” he says. “I feel much more confident with that kind of arrangement.” This approach also ensures that the selected third-party has appropriate qualifications and experience.

Equity and the Collective Lift

David Fortin notes that in building projects, “what you are doing to benefit the community in the long-term goes beyond including an Indigenous designer.” Recent federal procurement guidelines for large projects are encouraging firms and contractors to expand their Indigenous benefits plans. This is leading to considerations about how project costs can benefit Indigenous communities more broadly, with contracts going to Indigenous-owned companies from pre-design right through to warranty. As examples, Fortin cites working on a recent project proposal with a team that prioritized setting up a youth mentorship program and Indigenous hiring strategies for sub-trades.

“How can Indigenous involvement go beyond tokenism?” asks Shaw. For her, taking an equity lens means looking at how design can facilitate a “collective lift” for communities. How can a project—small or large—allow communities to build capacity, increase their economic prosperity, and achieve long-term goals such as strengthening cultural and environmental resiliency? Indigenous involvement can help result in projects that better meet these community needs.

One Generation to the Next

This equity lens also extends beyond our own profession and the borders of our own country. How can non-Indigenous architects ally themselves with Indigenous architects in Canada in working to make the AED world a more supportive place for Indigenous and other BIPOC architects to grow their capabilities and careers? If a stronger, more inclusive profession includes a greater number of Indigenous and BIPOC architects, how can they be provided with resources to learn how to protect their own interests, know their capabilities, and find opportunities to build their portfolios? How can we all improve upon the consulting partnership process, so as to respect each other’s knowledge and growth?

The present generation of established architects stands to improve the profession in ways that benefit the next generation. Self-aware, well-intentioned architects—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous—have the capacity to impact relationships that uplift those that work in architecture and design, along with their families and communities—as well as those who architecture serves from one generation to the next.