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What if architecture could help to heal first-nation communities and point their youth in the right direction? Bring on the land-claim settlements and the detox centres. Bring on the healing circles. But do this as well: Replace the shoddy, dehumanizing buildings on reserves with architecture that means something to aboriginal peoples.

As a place to begin, the Early Childhood Education Centre (ECEC) commissioned by the Mnjikaning First Nation near Orillia, Ont., stands in a class of its own.

In this scenario, architecture is not just the school -- it's also the teacher. Designed by Teeple Architects of Toronto, the ECEC centre is shaped like the curve of an arm to partially sweep around a circular playground, suggesting a human embrace. Considered another way, the centre is a long, narrow wooden vessel, clad in cedar on the exterior, lined with Douglas fir on the interior -- a sculpture designed to be filled by eager, young minds. The roof looks like it's being stretched and pegged like a tent, expressing directional shifts and an affection for subtle folds and sudden lifts. The body of the school compresses and releases underneath, bay windows jut out at dramatic angles, walls are canted outward and doors leading outside to the playground are tucked well underneath the protective main roof. The centre's main entrance is signalled by the roof rising up to about seven metres high, allowing for easy run off of rain and snow, and exposing a structure of prelaminated wooden timbers. Planes of wood detailed in thin horizontal pieces operate like welcoming gates.

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Though long and narrow, the plan of the centre accommodates a generous hall from which all the rooms for the children are laid out on one side, with administrative offices, kitchen, small gym and resource centre for parents occupying the other flank of the building. There are two rooms each for infants, toddlers and preschool children. All of the classrooms face east so that teachers and their young students can look out through the generous glass windows to the morning sun for new beginnings. Playtime is outside in the circle of life.

"A lot of the first-nation kids don't know their first-nation history as they were brought up in non-aboriginal schools," says firm principal Stephen Teeple, "so, it has to be relearned. You have to be a bit literal in a way about the circle of life, it can't just be implied -- it has to be described to the kids."

The Mnjikaning educational centre is located on the Rama First Nation reserve, east of Orillia, Ont., about two hours north of Toronto. Ontario Lieutenant-Governor James Bartleman, who is Mnjikaning and a local hero of Rama, attended the centre's opening -- the building will be named in his honour.

The land is given to rolling hills, scrub brush and forests. Newly planted around the educational centre, there is a predictable landscape of native plantings -- dogwood and grasses -- that has become de rigueur in most contemporary interventions on the land. What distinguishes the circular playground is a wooden fence constructed of staggered posts, a poetic device intended to mimic the rhythm of the traditional fish weirs used for centuries by the Mnjikaning to trap fish at the narrows between Lake Simcoe and Lake Couchiching. The word Mnjikaning means people of the fish fence.

There are some design strategies shared between the Mnjikaning facility and a childcare centre completed by Teeple Architects several years ago at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont. It was that project that convinced the Mnjikaning representatives to talk to Stephen Teeple about their building plans. Both are strongly aligned with the land. And the land has much to teach. The daycare at Trent expresses a more muscular materiality and sinks its weight heavily into the side of a berm. The Mnjikaning centre sits lightly on the land, its composition more tightly constrained, much like the surrounding landscape.

For high irony, there's no place like Rama, Ont. From the main entrance of the ECEC, where children are playing with blocks and squishing their faces against the windows, it's possible to gaze upon the rotunda entrance and overscaled hotel of Casino Rama, Ontario's only first nation's commercial casino which opened in 1996 and operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Its hotel towers above the flat landscape like Oz, with murals, beautifully painted, of the people's original clans -- the bird, deer, crane, loon, fish and bear. Part of the building is a glorified strip mall in which the landscape was denuded to make way for a 2,500-car parking lot.

Gamblers drive through the aboriginal community of Rama, with its scattering of tidy homes and community facilities, to get to the main attraction. The gamblers spill into the windowless, smoky gaming hall from the Orillia area, and they arrive in busloads from Toronto. On this Monday afternoon, there are mostly Asians around the blackjack tables. At the slot machines, people are distinctive for looking old, poor and worn out by life.

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Profits from Casino Rama are shared by 100 first nations in Ontario; they're what paid for the $2.8-million Early Childhood Education Centre, its wrapping in native wood, its slate flooring, its radiant heated rubber flooring for the toddlers, as well as the new furniture, the pots and pans, even the new bicycle helmets still waiting to be taken out of their packaging.

The relationship between sensitive, contemporary architecture and building on first nations has been only occasionally tested. Along the West Coast, for instance, leading contemporary practitioners were commissioned during the 1990s to work with more than a dozen first-nation communities to produce culturally meaningful, occasionally exhilarating schools and community centres. Much less has been dared in other provinces.

But, considering the banal scattering of inadequate shelter on most first nations there's an obvious need for excellence in community planning and architecture. As a piece of sculpture in wood with a relationship to its site, the Mnjikining centre looks like the only building on reserve that belongs. Shannon Snache, the manager of the ECEC, says since moving from an inadequate facility down the road, there's been a noticeable impact on the kids. "The children seem very calm here. I don't know why, but they're calmer."

It could be that the new centre at Rama provides a template of sensitive, contemporary architecture for first-nation communities in Ontario and beyond. Part of what's required is a chance for thoughtful, rigorous architects to get to know new aboriginal clients. A process that engages is critical, too. Teeple Architects not only met with the local council, they presented their designs for the early childhood centre to Mnjikining gatherings of several hundred people. It was intense, recalls Teeple, who was assisted by site architect Eunmi Kim, and there were plenty of tough questions. On a recommendation from the Mnjikaning, Teeple Architects has since gone on to design the Beausoleil First Nation Community, Sports and Recreation Centre on Christian Island in Georgian Bay, which is nearing completion.

Across the country, there's an urgent need to integrate innovative architecture with the resurgence of aboriginal peoples. Just two months ago in Kelowna, B.C., Prime Minister Paul Minister pledged more than $5-billion over the next five years to provide education, health, housing and economic opportunities for first nations. Constructing first-nations schools, administered by aboriginal peoples, is part of that commitment. Just what Prime Minister-designate Stephen Harper will do with the agreement remains to be seen. But, surely no politician would move to undermine one of the fundamentals of strong, healthy communities: pride of place for first nations.

Where and how we educate our young are strong measures of what matters to society. Aspirations for the future are writ large in daycares and schools. Judging by the new education centre at Mnjikaning, there's tremendous faith in the promise of the coming generation. How many disastrous losses at the slot machine does it take to build a beautiful school? Too many, and never enough -- that's the dilemma that the Mnjikaning people know all too well.

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