Designing affordable housing with Cree, Anishinabe, and Metis people.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Canadian native peoples (Homes and haunts)
Dwellings (Design and construction)
Housing (Design and construction)
Authors: Deane, Lawrence
Smoke, Eladia
Pub Date: 06/22/2010
Publication: Name: Canadian Journal of Urban Research Publisher: Institute of Urban Studies Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Institute of Urban Studies ISSN: 1188-3774
Issue: Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 19 Source Issue: 1
Product: Product Code: 1520010 Housing incl Mobile Homes NAICS Code: 2332 Residential Building Construction
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Canada Geographic Code: 1CANA Canada
Accession Number: 243797912
Full Text: Abstract

Three levels of government are investing in the renewal or construction of affordable housing in Manitoba's inner-city areas. Much of this housing is targeted to communities that are predominantly Aboriginal. Little consultation has occurred about the underlying cultural assumptions of the design of these homes. This is in spite of the fact that the layout of a home may significantly direct the life ways of a family or affect their relationships to relatives or neighbours. Lack of consultation has proved problematic in some Indigenous communities, whereas in those few cases where consultation has occurred, the emerging designs have been significantly different from conventional designs.

This article describes a four-year process of consultation on cultural concepts in the design of buildings intended for Aboriginal families in urban communities in Manitoba. Participatory design activities drew out numerous themes that, if incorporated into buildings, might help Indigenous families retain or recover their cultural values and lifeways. A number of these Indigenous themes have been incorporated in buildings that have already been constructed. The themes relate not just to the decorative features of the buildings bur to conceptual assumptions underlying their design. The article concludes with some public policy recommendations.

Keywords: housing design, Aboriginal culture, participatory design, policy


Trois niveaux de gouvernement investissent dans le renouvellement ou la construction d'habitation abordable dans les zones du centre-ville du Manitoba. Une grande partie de cette habitation est visee aux communautes qui sont essentiellement Aborigenes. Pas de consultation a eu lieu sur des presupposes culturels de la conception de ces maisons. C'est malgre que la disposition d'une maison peut considerablement directe du mode de vie d'une famille ou peut affecter leurs relations a des parents ou voisins. Le manque de consulation s'est revelee problematique dans certaines communautes autochtones, alors que dans les rares cas ou la consultation a eu lieu, les dessins nouveaux ont ete significativement differente de conceptions traditionnelles.

Cet article decrit un processus de quatre ans de consultation sur les concepts culturels dans la conception de batiments destines aux familles autochtones en milieu urbain au Manitoba. Les activites participatives dans la conception des batiments ont retire de nombreux themes qui, s'ils sont incorpores dans les bitiments, pourrait aider les familles autochtones de conserver ou recuperer leurs valeurs culturelles et leur mode de vie. Un certain nombre de ces themes autochtones ont ete incorpores dans des bitiments qui ont deja ete construits. Les themes portent non seulement sur les elements decoratifs des batiments, mais aux hypotheses conceptuelles sous-tendant leur design. L'article se termine avec quelques recommandations de politique publique.

Mots cles: le design d'habitation, de la culture autochtone, de conception participative, des politiques


Between 2002 and 2009, the Province of Manitoba, City of Winnipeg, and Government of Canada committed over $145 million under various programs--the Affordable Housing Initiative (AHI), Homeworks!, Neighbourhood Housing Assistance (NHA) and the Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program (RRAP), a number of which are administered through the Winnipeg Housing and Homelessness Initiative--to upgrade, rehabilitate, or construct over 8,088 units of affordable housing in Manitoba (Manitoba 2009). Of this amount, $117 million has been directed to Winnipeg inner-city neighbourhoods. In these localities the largest identifiable population group is Aboriginal. In William Whyte neighbourhood in inner-city Winnipeg, for example, the Aboriginal population is 45 percent (Winnipeg 2010). In Lord Selkirk Park it is 68 percent. Whether specifically directed to Aboriginal residents, or targeted to older urban areas, it seems that renovated and newly constructed affordable housing in Manitoba will be made available extensively to Aboriginal families. Sometimes the concentrations ofsuch housing in particular localities and streets will be so large as to begin to shape the character of those neighbourhoods.

Some of this housing reconstruction has been accompanied by consultation with neighbourhood residents (Winnipeg 2008). These consultations have attempted to include Aboriginal organizations, and they have asked questions such as: "What characteristics of (your neighbourhood) do you like?"; "what characteristics of (your neighbourhood) do you not like?"; "what would you like (your neighbourhood) to be like in ten years?" (Winnipeg 2008). Such consultations have not included specific questions derived from the cultural base of respondents and related to specific housing design or the layout of neighbourhoods. Indeed, culturally-based consultation is rare in any housing development (Dawson 2008; CMHC 2005; Krinsky 1996; Milgrom 2003). On the few occasions when questions about culture have been asked in housing project developments, the definition of culture that has been used has often been problematic and likely to have little bearing on much more than the cosmetic design of buildings.

This paper argues that collaborative design of housing in cooperation with potential resident groups, led by Aboriginal Elders, is a powerful and efficient way to define physical spaces that allow people to thrive. Positioning of buildings and the layout of rooms in family homes are important issues because they reflect assumptions about values and life patterns of the families who will occupy these spaces. Many urban Aboriginal families are engaged in a process of cultural survival and recovery, and the way that housing layout shapes their life ways and family interaction patterns can either assist in this recovery process, or become another structure that impedes it.

The need for Aboriginal inner-city residents to recover their cultural identities has been strongly advocated on many occasions. Taiaiake Alfred (2005) has argued that Indigenous peoples must, at every turn, question the concessions made by mainstream society in redistributing resources. He argues that unless these benefits help to build cultural consciousness for Onkwehonwe (original people) they will simply function as another force for assimilation.

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (Canada 1996) devoted a chapter of its final report to the urbanization of Aboriginal peoples. The report recognized that 50 percent of Aboriginal populations lived in urban areas in 1996, and that this demographic would increase by a further 50 percent over the next two decades. Aboriginal presenters before the Commission indicated that they felt it was a matter of "fundamental importance" that Aboriginal people retain their cultural identities while living in urban areas (Canada 1996, 521). The Report stated:

Research undertaken for the Commission ... contradicts the idea that Aboriginal people consider their cultures and traditions irrelevant to urban life. They emphasize that to cope in the urban milieu, support for enhancing and maintaining their culture and identity is essential. Whenever that support is absent, the urban experience is profoundly unhappy for Aboriginal people (Canada 1996, 520).

Leroy Little Bear (2000, 84) has described the struggle that many Indigenous people face in piecing together an integrated consciousness after the impacts of colonization.

It is important to remember that a 'pan-Indian' culture has never existed. Winnipeg has been both a trade destination for the continent and the historical territory of Cree, Anishinabe (Ojibway), Dene, Metis, and Dakota nations, each of which is a distinct culture. Michael Hart (2002, 34 & 32) describes the rebuilding of these cultures:

Unlike many reports, the Royal Commission (Canada 1996, 523) makes its definition of culture explicit. It states that:

Classic anthropological definitions of culture are similarly broad. They incorporate not only folkloric and ceremonial expressions of culture but also ideational aspects that are less overtly identifiable, but no less powerful in their influence on the shared life ways of people. Harris and Johnson (2007, 10), for example, define culture as:

The authors of this paper find that the large-scale provision of Euro-Canadian designed housing, with little or no collaboration with the targeted recipients, hinders cultural survival and the ability of families to reach full potential. As Alfred might argue, this method of housing delivery has had the effect of prescribing particular family forms and daily living patterns on inner-city Aboriginal families and protracts the failed quest to assimilate us. As one Elder said to us: "we need housing that empowers us."

Collaborative Approaches to Housing Design With Aboriginal People

In his doctoral dissertation, "Sustaining Diversity: Participatory Design and the Production of Urban Space," Richard Milgrom (2003, 39) observes that "in western urban settings the inhabiting population is increasingly less likely to be the culture responsible for the construction process." He contrasts the concept of designed space as "a neutral volume that is moulded, shaped, and ordered by the architect in order to give it meaning," with a feminist or participatory approach to architectural thought that "focused on the everyday lives of urban dwellers," and "how well the needs of the inhabitants (primarily women and children) are met" (Milgrom, 135). Milgrom (2003, 141) refers to Rodman and Coopers' case studies of Canadian social housing, where they discuss "culturally appropriate" built form, explaining how the mechanisms of housing design and delivery have inherent structures that pertain exclusively to the dominant culture:

As one Elder spoke about the inability of urban Aboriginal people to contribute to the planning of their own housing, she said "this racism has been normalized."

As an example of the failures of homes planned with no input from future residents, Dawson (2008) has shown that housing built for Inuit families in the Northwest Territories in the 1960s created barriers to traditional family patterns and activities. Concerns over meeting Inuit housing needs cost-effectively and expeditiously led the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources to utilize southern-designed structures across the North. At the time, modernist notions of architecture assumed that human need was universal, and that singular design concepts could be used to optimize human living requirements.

Dawson (2008) used spatial syntax methods to track daily activities of 47 families who occupied these homes. His observations showed that rooms could not be used as intended unless cultural patterns changed. In most cases the Inuit families responded to inappropriate designs by using rooms for purposes other than those for which they were designed, or moving activities outside. Families preferred to sleep together, so bedrooms were repurposed. Kitchen fixtures were removed and cooking performed outside to make room for meals shared between extended families. Heating levels were inappropriate for processing hides into clothing, so this activity moved outside.

George Esber (1989) was engaged by a group of architects in Arizona to conduct ethnographic consultations with Apache groups about the design of new affordable housing. Esber took time to build relationships of trust with the Apache. He used classic ethnographic methods to gain insight into cultural factors that would affect housing design. Recommendations included fewer partitions to allow guest and host interaction during cooking and eating, outdoor kitchens so guests could join in cooking, large open spaces inside to accommodate visiting among large groups, and secluded sleeping areas.

Apache people on other reservations had either moved into new government-issue housing unwillingly, or else moved back to their old homes. By contrast, once the culturally-based designs were incorporated into new housing, follow-up studies showed the Apache appreciated the new homes and were pleased to stay in the new development.

The Seabird Island First Nations Sustainable Community Demonstration Project on the Fraser River in British Columbia (Dobie and Sieniuc 2003; CMHC 2009) was undertaken in consultation between Broadway Architects and the Sto:lo First Nation, primarily as an exercise in sustainable housing. Traditional design elements were included to reflect the community's culture and heritage. Homes were oriented in a semicircular pattern around a cooperatively planted communal healing garden. Elders consulted in its design and children grew plants to be laid out in its four quadrants. FlexHousing was used in seven homes: as family configurations changed, each unit in the triplex and each detached home could be converted into two self-contained suites to create five additional units of housing (Broadway Architects 2010). As families developed and aged, the homes could be reconfigured to allow extended families to stay together.

Chenew Holdings (2004) met with future residents to plan an affordable housing project in Saskatoon. A Metis woman with long community involvement facilitated discussions that began with dancing, music, and a feast. A researcher fluent in Cree conducted interviews. However, cultural conceptualization was limited to questions about jigging, fiddle playing, storytelling, woodworking, sewing, and making bannock, all folkoric and materialist expressions. This would be problematic for designers who wished to accommodate family patterns, value orientations, and spatial preferences not encompassed in this definition of culture.

Those who study culture point out that these values and ideas are often outside of the awareness of individuals (Ember and Ember 2007; Esber 1989; Harris and Johnson 2007) and are comprised of the unspoken, implicit assumptions by which one conducts daily living. Most individuals have difficulty explaining why they hold certain value orientations or why particular actions seem "right." Esber (1989, 189-190) encountered this in his consultations with the Apache, finding that requirements of housing were based on unconscious patterns of behavior ... whenever relevant behaviors were observed, identified, and described to Apache informants, they were always acknowledged by an enlivened, "Oh yeah, that's the way we do."

Culture can be important also for the layout of groups of houses. James Waldram (1987) has shown that the relocation of Ojibway families from traditional communities to new housing developments, even in remote localities, has had devastating effects on the social fabric of families and communities. In Waldram's (1987) study, a community was divided into three similar and roughly adjacent neighbourhoods. Two were relatively tension-free, while a third experienced levels of unprecedented violence and increased alcohol abuse. When members of this tension-filled community migrated to a summer fishing locality, however, most of the stresses subsided. Waldram attempted to understand the reasons for this distress.

His calculations of population densities led to the conclusion that in the communities that experienced tension, the relocation process disrupted clan groupings by locating unrelated families together. Waldram identifies population density and lack of proximity to one's clan as the key issues that led to personal tension, alcohol abuse, and violent outbursts. When communities migrated to summer fishing camps they migrated as clan groups and tensions subsided. Shkylnyk (1985) arrived at a similar conclusion in her study of the relocation of the Grassy Narrows reserve in the 1960s.

Methodology and Conversations

The researchers' backgrounds are pertinent to the orientation of the research. Dr. Lawrence Deane is a faculty member at the Inner City Social Work Program (ICSWP), of the University of Manitoba, located on Selkirk Avenue in the William Whyte neighbourhood of North End Winnipeg. Eladia Smoke is a practicing Anishinabe (Potawatomi) architectural intern in Winnipeg who began this research as a student, then continued in partnership with Deane after graduation. Both served on the board of a social housing project situated in the inner city of north Winnipeg. Part of this study is the exploration of effective methods to design with Aboriginal people.

We based our methods on the advice of a presenter at the 2005 Chautauqua conference on planning with Indigenous peoples, hosted in Winnipeg. The presenter, Diane Redsky of the Ma Mawi Chi Itata Centre, said:

While a number of cohesive and strongly expressed design themes emerged from our research, the process of planning together is paramount when designing effective built projects with inner-city Aboriginal people. Our experience shows that Elders' insight helps groups come together on difficult subjects. As one Elder said, it is their "duty to bring the sacred bundle back to the young people." A timeline and methodology of the research follows.


Smoke was part of a participatory design studio for a healing lodge in Fox Lake Cree Nation. Group interviews with the senior high school class and presentations by band councilors were recorded through notes.


Smoke conducted open-ended interviews with Executive Directors, staff representatives, and founding members of Winnipeg inner-city organizations including Urban Circle Training Centre, ICSWP, Native Women's Transition Centre, Ma Mawi Chi Itata, North End Community Renewal Corporation, and six social and cooperative housing programs. Of fifteen persons interviewed, ten were of Metis or Aboriginal descent. Smoke also asked if their members would be interested in sharing in a study. Housing providers felt their perceived position of power would make ah invitation inappropriate. However, the Urban Circle, ICSWP, and Native Women's Transition Centre felt their students and clients "are used to studies going on all the time," and would not feel undue pressure to participate. Questions to investigate effective housing types were developed cooperatively in following interviews, typical practice throughout the study. Deane was interviewed as well, and offered to continue the research together, launching the next phase of research.


Smoke, as an employee of Prairie Architects, participated in the design of Aboriginal House at the University of Manitoba Fort Garry campus. The process was undertaken in two phases:

Collective Design Process (CDP)

Students, staff, and university administration helped develop design questions. They were then invited to share food and sit four or five to a table to complete booklets of worksheets in discussion. One participant at each table recorded comments and preferences based on worksheets that ask a specific design question followed by sketches of possible solutions, with space left for a group sketch and comments (Figure 1).

Integrated Design Process (IDP)

Based on the Collective Design Process (CDP), Aboriginal designers with Prairie Architects presented physical scale models and hand sketches of possible designs. All stakeholders, including students, staff, administrators, professional consultants, and designers sat in a circle together and made decisions by consensus. Meetings were repeated at each stage of the design development.


Deane and Smoke conducted further interviews with founding members of Ogijita Pimatisiwin Kinamatwin (OPK) and Aboriginal Visioning for the North End. We shared in participatory design research with approximately sixty-nine of the primarily Aboriginal students and staff at ICSWP and Urban Circle. The research took the form of a Collective Design Process (CDP), described above, and research was used in a feasibility study to pursue funding for student housing through the North End Housing Project.


Native Women's Transition Centre gathered nine Aboriginal clients and one staff person for a community mapping and home modeling exercise. The group used coloured pens to transcribe aspects that they would change, as well as the strengths of the William Whyte neighbourhood onto a large blank map. Researchers felt this would have been more successful with a blank sheet of paper. After sharing food, the women modeled their "ideal home" using scale figures, artificial vegetation, foam board, wooden pieces, and clay (Figure 2). Audio recordings and photos were taken with permission.




Deane and Smoke conducted a CDP followed by a group debriefing conversation with twelve Aboriginal women at Aboriginal Visioning for the North End, using the booklet from previous discussions, modified based on suggestions from staff members.


Smoke, as an employee of Prairie Architects, conducted a CDP and IDP with Elders, parents, and staff at Urban Circle and ICSWP to design Makoonsag Intergenerational Learning Centre, a new daycare renovation planned in William Whyte.

Smoke and Deane took notes and audio recordings of interviews with the following advisers:

* an Elder employed in social programs supporting youth

* an Elder, also a professor at the U of M in the Faculty of Social Work

* two Elders employed in traditional healing for people who have experienced trauma

* a Metis Elder, her daughter, and a friend who founded a healing lodge for women

* two single mothers with experience of Manitoba Housing's social housing programs

Cultural Values as a Progenitor of Design Hospitality and Transitional Support

Said one Elder, "It's very important to me to have my own home because of all the traffic. My family's not just my blood family." She went on to describe hosting flood victims from Pimicikamak Cree Nation. She said her house was "always filled with something going on" as the youths she worked with would use her home as an "MPR" (multi-purpose room). She described the ability to host as a "point of pride." Many respondents described one- or two-storey homes rather than apartments. Reasons included acoustical concerns due to drumming, guests, and children, the importance of maintaining a connection to the earth, natural ventilation for health, comfort, smudging, good daylight, and extra space to host family and friends. Participants said flexible bedroom arrangements would provide space to support friends and family who may be in transition. Written comments included: "Bedrooms with beds in the walls, so children can play, at bedtime pull out beds / Spare bedroom / For larger families 4-5 bedrooms / Hide-a-beds, couches / Futons / Cots / Extra inflatable mattresses / Or blankets."

One Anishinabe man said he often would sleep with his children when they were young, and felt uncomfortable when the family had to sleep in separate rooms. A participant in a modeling exercise said she would convert the extra space, normally partitioned off into bedrooms, into a usable messy area for kids. Two Elders described how they frequently had their grandchildren stay with them for indefinite periods of time, which led to an eviction.

Providing transitional support is heavily punished in current social housing practice. A single mother described how representatives from Manitoba Housing "ransacked" her house when they suspected she was "harbouring" an extra resident. She was only allowed one overnight stay before having to fill out forms to add the individual to the lease and false her rent. Though only she and her child were living in the home, they "rifled through drawers," and were "checking out my walls for photos--family pictures--to prove he was living with me." She mentioned these practices are the source of many apartment block "grudge matches" because residents suspect each other of alerting authorities.

Affordable housing design guidelines define strict area requirements for any new housing developments, with minimum required areas for bedrooms and very limited maximum areas per unit. Transitional units to be used cyclically are not funded. This creates a barrier to designing more appropriate homes, which may buy back underused bedroom space for other activities, or provide transitional space within a housing cluster. One approach to flexibility was presented in an architectural thesis prepared by Eladia Smoke (2008). Sleeping niches were arranged alongside the play space and defined with bi-fold partitions. Beds slid in or out and could be closed for privacy.

Safe Within the Circle

Participants repeatedly designed homes in a circle surrounding a communal space. During the modeling session at Native Women's Transition Centre, some of the women started modeling stand-alone homes, bur by the end of the session, the entire group had abandoned their own models to help a woman build a ring of town-homes. She said the homes would be "like a duplex," where she could live beside her mother. The homes surrounded a central open space, which she described as a "safe playground for the kids," where everyone in the cluster could watch over them (Figures 3 & 4).


Diane Redsky summarized a conception of parenting that focuses less on the nuclear family, and where "every person in the community has a part to play in taking care of our children." One Elder observed that the systematized familial destruction experienced by Aboriginal people for over three generations has led to a situation where we have "a group of people who lack parenting skills." Commenting on the concept of homes arranged around a central courtyard, she mused, "How do we begin to break down that cycle? How do we bring people together to help those people?"


Shared pursuits among residents, and especially involving youth, were mentioned as well. "There have to be activities that bring people together, otherwise it will only be buildings in a circle," said one Elder. Another Elder described how young people are eager for responsibility, jumping at any opportunity to help out. The courtyard could also double as a shared garden space. An Elder said, "teach kids to grow things and cook them. It helps give them pride, too, to accomplish things. We need community connectivity, for them to take on roles and be responsible for each other."

A participant described a successful community garden at Woodydale, a Manitoba Housing project assisted by a social program that operates out of a repurposed unit in the building. This unit serves as a resource centre for the block and a staging area for youth excursions. It also provides a social hub that minimizes tensions in the block since "if anybody has a party, everybody knows," and if teens are "getting in trouble, people know right away."

Youths at Fox Lake Cree Nation envisioned using a shared indoor space for activities like learning traditional embroidery, sewing, and cooking, and as a venue for healing, coming-of-age, and naming ceremonies. One Elder mentioned that youths need to spend time with positive role models and participate in ceremonies to mark important life stages and that without this, gang initiation will "fill the void."

Cree, Anishinabe, and Dene people, along with many other First Nations, use the circle as a basis to describe an entire philosophical standpoint. As one Elder explained in our consultations, different nations have many different teachings associated with the four directions; for Cree, the main entrance faces south, for Anishinabe east, and for Dakota west. Orienting buildings to the cardinal directions and grouping homes as described above can be difficult given limited lot sizes and the existing urban grid. One solution, suggested by Smoke's (2008) design thesis, is to combine vacant lots and curved homes around a large shared backyard. At Aboriginal House, stakeholders placed the student wing skewed from the campus grid to face due south and an east-west path represents the students' journeys. Makoonsag daycare cuts a north-south diagonal through an existing rectangular plan, creating a south to north path from the hectic urban context through to an "urban forest" play yard.

Honouring Elders

Elders' place in the home was so assured that in conversation it seemed inherent to the idea of home itself. One Elder commented that older women are revered as leaders and keep the peace within family groups, saying, "People in the home have to live by those rules, or there are consequences. Grandmothers chose the leaders. Grandmothers were called warriors." One respondent said the "granny on the block" will keep an eye on the neighbourhood. If a child is getting into trouble, the community will know because of the Elder's social networks. Many respondents mentioned that within the cluster there should be a dedicated Elder's home which would be universally designed for accessibility. The necessity of inviting Elders into the circle is even more acute since seniors must face, as two Elders described it, "double discrimination," being both "old and Aboriginal" (see Lange et al. this volume). Elders share their wisdom and guidance, and younger people can provide support and assistance as seniors age.

Community Economic Development Through Construction

We had a conversation with a founder of Ogijiita Pimatiswin Kinamatwin, a program where workers with a history in corrections or gang affiliation access training and work in construction. He expressed the benefits of keeping work and profits within the community, imparting a sense of ownership and responsibility to residents, as well as keeping ex-offenders gainfully employed and out of jail. Nabokov and Easton (1989) describe how historical homes in Aboriginal cultures were typically made with locally sourced materials that entailed low capital expenditure and used techniques that were taught from woman to woman. Modern building materials, by contrast, require significant expenditure and specialized skills, mostly held by men. At a healing retreat centre the women renovated or constructed all the buildings, and took great pride and pleasure in adding their own touches.

Social housing in Manitoba is publicly tendered, and usually the lowest bid is accepted regardless of mitigating factors. While introduced to prevent cronyism, this policy effectively shackles community economic development efforts since contractors are unwilling to take on marginal workers for fear of reducing their profit margins or coming in high on a bid. In 2004 and 2005, a social housing group made repeated efforts to influence this process. They eventually met with the Minister of Housing to request that tendering criteria include local employment or skill development. They were unsuccessful. More recently, renovations of large public housing developments have been carried out with involvement of residents which has created a sense of competence and ownership among the participants.

Community participation in construction requires that building materials are readily available and usable by future housing residents. This may suggest the consideration of alternative building materials such as straw bale, sod, or rammed earth. Straw bale is well suited to Winnipeg's extreme climate. It is more forgiving of mistakes in construction than industrially produced material. It can be more easily modified than woodframe, and its expense lies in the labour rather than the material. The straw bale building process may be more intuitive than standard construction methods and some steps, such as plastering, invite artistic license. Errors in conventional frame-cavity wall construction can easily lead to mould growth and other problems. Straw bale, when used dry, protected from water, and finished with earth plasters, continues to breathe and is much less subject to mould caused by warm, humid air from inside the home.

Current building codes do not provide for alternative construction. Within an urban centre, the use of materials other than standard woodframe or brick require case by case negotiation with plans examiners before permits can be released. In such cases architects or structural engineers must approve drawings and accept liability. Most professionals are simply unwilling to take such risks.

Connection to the Land

In addition to the call for shared gardens, participants in CDPs often sought to create a strong perceived connection to trees, water, and gardens. One participant said that many Aboriginal people respond to "something natural. Many are first-generation urbanites ... they really miss things from nature, things that have that natural feel." Another Elder said, "we're a land-based people."

Building elements that continue from outside to inside, such as the rough limestone east to west wall, and windows looking out onto indigenous prairie grasses at Aboriginal House, help to pull together the indoors and outdoors. Another strategy is to set windows under overhanging eaves to create a feel of reaching outside. In Makoonsag daycare, Aboriginal House, Thunderbird House in Winnipeg, and a new health centre at O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation, light from above pours into central shared spaces, connecting the core of the building to the sky. Building configurations can also define outdoor areas, such as pulling the building around a south-facing courtyard, creating a sheltered, warm area.

When completing worksheets showing a choice of exterior building photographs, participants often selected 'natural' materials such as wood and stone rather than industrial products. Geometrical patterns appear in both traditional and contemporary Aboriginal design, but often they are interspersed with playfulness, unpredictability, or irregularities. We found in CDP consultations that Aboriginal groups are clearly drawn to such irregular designs and non-repetitive textures. Repetitive or rectilinear patterns such as a line of identical windows set at the same height elicited negative comments such as, "looks like a jail," and, "too cold." On the other hand, varying heights, varying sizes, and multiple shapes were usually seen as more attractive.

Variation in the texture, colour, and shape can be difficult to obtain with modern materials. A simple strategy is to choose a rough texture instead of a smooth one. Fibre cement siding can be lapped or set on an angle to introduce a sense of the unexpected. Unmilled wood timbers can be used in interiors. Custom windows might reflect the geometry of traditional beadwork.


A sense of Aboriginal identity and specific values emerged through our consultations with community members and Elders. Asking the questions in several different contexts, individual and group interviews, CDP booklets, modeling, and mapping, allowed researchers to elicit responses more effectively while encouraging participants to take their own direction. It was clear that cultural identity can be supported and respected by appropriate housing design. Conversely, such identity may be further repressed by architectural designs that do not ask questions, and end up housing families within spaces that curtail the strengths imparted by cultural expression. This research has shown that creative design ideas can be translated into buildings that are both useful and aesthetically attractive. Many of the design concepts discussed here are currently being incorporated in buildings that are either under construction or have already been built.

As the province of Manitoba, City of Winnipeg, and Government of Canada partner in undertaking new housing in primarily Aboriginal neighbourhoods, it is necessary that planners consider the cultural paradigms that will be expressed and reinforced. It in the interests of all Canadians, First Nations, and Metis people that urban Aboriginal families and their children find support in our cultural survival. Cultural retention and development may be considered as important as home affordability. Aboriginal families have expressed interest in participating in the design, construction, maintenance, decoration, and celebration of homes to be built in their neighbourhoods. If this custom of collective renewal of home environments is supported by innovative design it will contribute to the long-term health and well-being of urban Aboriginal communities.

Policy Recommendations

* Include meaningful consultation with future residents in the design of social housing projects. This is an issue of trust. On one hand, after years of institutionalized prejudice and attempted cultural genocide, Aboriginal people may suspect an unwillingness to listen or act on what is heard. Governments, on the other hand, may believe that stakeholders do not have the capacity to address these complex issues. The research presented here shows this fear is unfounded. Trust can be built through repeated efforts where each participant has an equal chance to contribute to a successful outcome. Perhaps it seems that consultation will steal valuable time and resources from tight building schedules and budgets. On the contrary, professional experience shows that designing with clients, rather than for them, avoids unsuccessful solutions that, in the end, either take more time to fix or, if left unresolved, lead to detrimental results.

* Provide delivery mechanisms that encourage joint applications for extended family groups. Support networks formed within the physical context of adjacent dwellings represent wide-reaching benefits by helping to weave together our four generations.

* Employ strategic real estate purchases and requisitions with the goal of creating housing clusters as described in this research.

* Explore design and policy that supports, rather than punishes, the transitional housing being provided by Aboriginal households. Sharing space with people in transition provides a vital safety net that diverts our people from having to access even more government funds down the road should they be left homeless.

* Explore ways to prevent tax dollars from funneling out of target communities into the hands of remote building development corporations. This requires addressing inequities in the tendering process. One option would be to require a separate price (not included in the tendered bid) for the cost of labour from employees with a history of social need or involvement with the justice system. Careful cost-benefit analyses of such social investments show that this money is immediately recovered by government in new revenues from previously unemployed individuals and savings on social programs (Deane 2006). Nonmonetary effects of such inclusion are contributions to all social determinants of health for participants, and outcomes such as reduced addictions, reduced violence, improved parenting, and reduced recidivism. Participation in building our own spaces has the potential to help knit together fractured communities.


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Lawrence Deane

Faculty of Social Work

University of Manitoba

Eladia Smoke

Prairie Architects Inc
Colonization created a fragmentary worldview among Aboriginal
   peoples. By force, terror, and educational policy, it attempted to
   destroy the Aboriginal worldview--but failed. Instead, colonization
   left the heritage of jagged worldviews among indigenous peoples.
   They no longer had an Aboriginal worldview, nor did they adopt a
   Eurocentric worldview. Their consciousness became a random puzzle,
   a jigsaw puzzle that each person has to attempt to understand. Many
   collective views of the world competed for control of their
   behavior, and since none was dominant, modern Aboriginal people had
   to make guesses or choices about everything. Aboriginal
   consciousness became a site for overlapping, contentious,
   fragmented, competing desires and values.

Our people must relearn what it means to be ourselves, whether
   Cree, Anishinaabe, Dakota, Mi'kmaq, Haida, Inuit or any other
   peoples. We have to recapture our people's language, history and
   understanding of the world, take those teachings which will support
   us in the attempt to overcome oppression and reach
   mino-pimatiswin--the good life. On a spiritual level, we must learn
   and understand the values and beliefs of our people and freely
   decide those which we will internalize.

In its broadest sense culture is everything--tangible and
   intangible--that people learn and share in coming to terms with the
   environment. It includes a community's entire worldview, together
   with the beliefs, values, attitudes, and perceptions of life that
   may be reflected in material objects. It is the community's common
   understanding of the everyday world, with its meanings, symbols and
   standards of conduct, and its communal acceptance of appropriate
   behavior in that world.

The learned, socially acquired traditions of thought and behavior
   found in human societies. It is a socially acquired lifestyle that
   includes patterned, repetitive ways of thinking, feeling, and

housing exemplified in building codes and conventional housing
   quite literally constructs and represents "mainstream culture."
   This kind of housing is the dominant form, whose power is taken for
   granted and seems natural to most people in our society.

Seek out Aboriginal people if you're going to plan with them--on
   their terms. Aboriginal people should be involved at all stages and
   levels of the planning ... We have the expertise and the capacity
   regarding our own issues ... An iterative process demands a
   process-driven, not outcome-driven way of doing things.
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