Skip to main content
lisa rochon

I wanted to have answers to some simple questions about the 22 houses promised last week by the federal government to the deeply troubled Cree community of Attawapiskat. I wasn't looking for deep insights into the culturally appropriate responses to the problem of aboriginal housing, although that would have been ideal. But that would be disingenuous to ask of a government that has failed, as have its predecessors, to provide the most basic shelter for first nations in Canada.

Basic information is what I was after: Who were the architects of the new houses? Were the structures sustainably designed with serious insulation and solar panels to offset utility costs that, in this reserve on the isolated shores of James Bay, are twice the Canadian average? Were they constructed locally or in China? Given the shoddy construction and poor ventilation of housing that exists up north, I wanted to know: Were they mould-resistant? Were they built to last more than five or seven years?

I was curious, as are many Canadians, about what went through the minds of the politicians and bureaucrats working in Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development when they approved the new houses for Attawapiskat and its howling winters of 40 below. Similar to the cheap, culturally irrelevant housing I've seen on other reserves, these ones look flimsy enough to serve as summertime hot-dog stands – hot-dog stands without electricity and running water, perched next to ditches filled with human waste. They may be called emergency housing but they will end up as permanent shacks of inadequacy.

In Canada, where increasingly sophisticated solutions to housing the most marginalized people in our cities are being imagined and built – at Woodward's mixed-use development in Vancouver, or at Harbour Light in downtown Toronto – answers to these kinds of questions should be immediate and clear. When I ask the same of developers and architects, there's about an hour's wait before answers are e-mailed. But although I waited several days, and sent repeated requests, there was no response to my simple questions about Attawapiskat. Clearly, the government has nothing to say.

So, I called on various experts – three architects and a business leader – who have worked successfully with aboriginal communities to address the crisis of housing. We all agreed it is a hugely complex problem with no surefire fixes. The challenges facing Attawapiskat and most aboriginal communities in remote areas of Canada go well beyond architecture. For the record, here's what some of them had to say.

The centrality of culture

Paul Mitchell, principal of North Bay, Ont.-based Mitchell Architects and designer of Gi-Da-Gi-Binez Youth Centre in Fort Frances, a 12-bed secure facility sensitively designed and carefully crafted with the support of elders, educators and youth workers to help in the healing of criminally charged aboriginal youth from northwestern Ontario.

"We went through a whole series of long meetings with a dynamic committee, including a number of chiefs and elders from Fort Frances and the region. We started every meeting with a prayer and a smudging ceremony. They wanted a tepee reference for the healing/cultural room in the youth centre. The circle is very important, as are the four directions, with access to the east especially so. I remember one of the entrances to the centre was passing through the parking lot and I was quickly corrected on the inappropriate nature of that line of energy.

"How to accommodate extended families or different lifestyles like goose hunting in Attawapiskat? What's the nature of the collective versus the individual? We really need to listen."

Rethinking ownership

Anne Giardini, Vancouver-based novelist (The Sad Truth About Happiness ) and president of Weyerhaeuser, a pulp-and-paper company working in partnership – through joint-venture sawmills and shared-forest licenses – with aboriginal bands across the country.

"People value a product that they make themselves. The inability to own a house has been a real constraint; there's nothing you can take to the bank and pledge to start a business. There's no sense of ownership. I've always believed that there are several obvious partners who could and should be at the table when it comes to aboriginal housing: the aboriginal communities themselves, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, all three levels of government, our smart and innovative Canadian engineering, architect and design communities, and the Canadian forest-products industry.

"When I sit down for a meal with a first-nations person and we talk about our hopes and dreams, they're identical. The communities want a future for their children, education, opportunities and a means to protect what they view as culturally important to their community."

Master plans and protocols

Janna Levitt, principal of Toronto-based Levitt Goodman Architects, which designed the award-winning Centre for Native Family and Child Well-Being; the Toronto centre incorporates administrative offices, a daycare, a meeting room within a contemporary longhouse, a rooftop garden with a sweat lodge, a design studio, and an addiction and mental-health-care clinic.

"Talk to the people. Talk to the chief. And talk about the way they want to live and the kind of housing they'd like, and start putting together a master plan for the community. Or, they may say they want to go somewhere else. You need to give them a choice. If we don't start initiating a discussion and a protocol with these folks, as we would with anybody else, then it's not effective.

"To say that they don't know what they want, or can't manage their finances, is really infantilizing. I would never say that to my clients here in Toronto. I know that they need more time than other clients who have the benefit of a less onerous history, but that's the commitment you have to make as a consultant going up there."

Doing it with them

Graham Murfitt, senior project architect at the Ottawa offices of Smith Carter, who has worked in Iqaluit and Yellowknife on housing and community-centre designs.

"First-nations people that I have visited in their houses don't really feel that these are their houses – it comes across as an arrangement. I suspect that comes from the way that places are planned and the disjunction between what they really want and the housing they're given. The best way is not to do it for them but to do it with them."

Instead of the silence of the government on the housing crisis in Attawapiskat and many places beyond, here was a full-bodied concert of sensitive, tested ideas. The arrogance and gloss of a top-down bureaucracy, ruled by paternalistic machinery, was nowhere to be found. Instead, there was a willingness to sit down, and start with the basics – like the importance of a circle and the promise of a yellow sun.