Truth and Reconciliation in architecture

Written by Jessica Gomez-Jones and Mariah Wilson

September 30th marks the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. In acknowledging the traumas and barriers Indigenous people in Canada faced in the past and continue to face today, our team works through the principles outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, designing spaces for the future that are attentive to the impacts of the past on the people of today.

As a part of Canada’s corporate sector, we see our services represented in the 92nd Call to Action, applying the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a reconciliation framework of principles, norms and standards to corporate policy and core operational activities involving Indigenous peoples and their lands and resources. As a 40-year-old architecture practice based on Treaty 7 territory, this means committing to meaningful consultation and building relationships with Indigenous populations who call Treaty 7 home as well as the communities whose traditional lands we design structures on.

Our team is committed to Indigenous reconciliation through a policy of lifelong learning and adaptive community engagement to develop our knowledge of Indigenous cultures and lands. In doing so, our relationships with Indigenous design and community engagement are founded differently from one sector to the next. In honour of National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, we met with each of our partners to discuss the ways in which their architecture practices in each sector have developed with their understanding of Indigenous history and present community needs.

Truth and Reconciliation in educational architecture

We began by sitting down with our partner Chito Pabustan, talking through the ways architecture and interior design in educational spaces play into efforts towards reconciliation and creating safe spaces for those with intergenerational traumas from the residential school system. There is no perfect school for everyone, but we continually work towards spaces like Joane Cardinal Schubert High School: spaces that are bright, inviting and create a sense of belonging for all. We work to design spaces that evolve beyond the original “eyes forward, no distractions” typology towards ones with more natural light, more space and more flexibility. Moves like this are good for everyone, not singling out Indigenous members of the student body but mediating the challenges they might face in particular in ways that simultaneously benefit a wide range of individuals who make up the student body. It’s about the people and the impacts of these choices may be greater for some than others without singling them out or tokenizing them. There’s also a level of trust and respect shown by giving young people a space that is an investment and a testament to your confidence in them to succeed—that’s the influence and impact of architecture. What’s the perfect school? One where you are welcome, one where you are given that level of trust and respect. Inclusive programming continually transforms people’s experience of a school. We aim to design welcoming spaces that act as intuitive tools for the educators of today and tomorrow and safe spaces for their students.

Creating comfortable spaces in healthcare architecture

We opened our discussion with partner Stephen Mahler surrounding his work in the healthcare sector and also talked about several related topics that tie in with the design approach we take on these large-scale projects to accommodate people from all walks of life. He says that the key to designing these spaces is to be empathetic. For many, a trip to the doctor or the hospital can be a very stressful event. We need to respect that by providing culturally-sensitive spaces for families and communities to gather with one another. At the Sheldon Chumir Health Centre a smudging room was designed to provide Indigenous communities with the opportunity to cleanse negative energy, which is especially meaningful in times of crisis, illness and death. Creating comfortable spaces to reduce stress includes considerations for scale, privacy, acoustics and use of nature inspired finishes and colour palettes.

While reflecting on the beginning of his career to now, Stephen feels that as an industry we have come a long way in incorporating Indigeneity into healthcare design, but that there’s so much more we can learn through building meaningful relationships. Learnings from local Indigenous communities led to the awareness of the importance of providing for the family unit throughout the clinical journey. This inspired the creation of smaller private waiting spaces where families can gather and stay together for longer periods in many of our healthcare projects, such as the Medicine Hat Regional Hospital expansion and renovation. While this was inspired by Indigenous values, it’s a shared universal value that will benefit any group that needs to visit the hospital (especially those travelling long distances). Outside of the relationships GGA has developed within the healthcare sector, Stephen says he pulls inspiration from GGA’s Indigenous Awareness Training. In particular, the team-building exercises at the Dodginghorse Ranch in Tsuut’ina Nation have provided him and other members of the leadership team with a greater insight into local Indigenous healing principles, broadening our understanding of inclusive healthcare design.

We have come a long way in incorporating Indigeneity into healthcare design, but there’s so much more we can learn through building meaningful relationships with local Indigenous communities through incorporating Truth and Reconciliation in architecture design.

Storytelling through recreational architecture

Having led the design of projects like Genesis Centre, Elevation Place and Brookfield Residential YMCA, GGA partner David Wittman says one of the main tenets of recreational centres is designing a building that’s welcoming to a diverse range of people. Since recreation centres provide a multitude of services for the public, you don’t want the design to be too representative of a single culture since it can isolate others from accessing the space. We achieve this through meaningful and intentional engagement where we can hear from a multitude of experiences and perspectives. Often, this comes from including more voices at the design table and being open to different ways to engage and connect with communities helps us arrive at an architectural vision that achieves the best project for the people using it. One way we do this with Indigenous communities is by having a an artist capture engagement sessions and storytelling in real-time through graphics, drawings and text that we provide as a summary of our sessions instead of a traditional “What We Heard” report. This storytelling connects more deliberately with oral traditions and cultural histories.

Within recreation centres, we endeavour to create abstract theming that ties in with local communities to weave together a story through the built form connecting the context with the people, place, land, climate and geography. We work with Indigenous communities to develop a deeper understanding of the thousands of years of history of the traditional lands and use biophilic elements to connect the building with the region. In Elevation Place, this is evidenced in the natural elements seen throughout the building, from the locally sourced wood and stones to the views of the surrounding mountain vistas.

Another key aspect of recreation centres is how the community gathers and is brought together through sports and local events. It’s important for recreation centres to have the flexibility to adapt to different community needs and events, especially for culturally significant ceremonies where you don’t want the design of the space to clash with the significance of the event through showcasing specific cultural motifs. In Genesis Centre, we designed a large flexible space that can be set up as badminton, volleyball and basketball courts but can also be used for larger gatherings. Having access to key amenities like washrooms and elements like natural light makes it a highly sought-after space for sports and events with its recent usage for the Miyo Pimâtisiwin “Good Life” Traditional Pow Wow Celebrations over the summer.

Truth and Reconciliation in architecture can be seen at Elevation Place, a recreation centre in Canmore, where biophilic elements are incorporated throughout the building to weave together a visual story that connects the built form with the surrounding Rocky Mountain landscape.

Design advocacy in office architecture

While the design of interior spaces in a market-ready office building is often limited to the common areas, like the lobby, amenity spaces and public areas, partner Vince Dods stressed the importance of acknowledging the land through design and creating a welcoming space for all individuals in these public spaces. Through biophilic elements and the use of natural, locally sourced materials, it’s become a standard practice of GGA to connect our designs with the broader landscape of Treaty 7. In ATCO Park, we designed a corporate campus that features large glulam beams, floor-to-ceiling windows that connect the interior with the exterior as well as numerous ways to gather (e.g., around a wood-burning fireplace, in the Blue Flame kitchen or at a large meeting table). Beyond the tangible materials that make up an office, it’s become essential to design different scales and inter-relationship of spaces that can appeal to anyone and ensure everyone is welcome and comfortable in these spaces.

Many may intrinsically believe that there is less flexibility when designing offices due to the limited control over tenant spaces, but there is a lot of opportunity to incorporate advocacy through client education and best practice guidelines. Unlike the public sector, where a client may come to you with a predetermined list of design parameters, the private sector offers architects the opportunity to teach their clients about different design principles and values. As we’ve become more educated about Indigenous design principles and regional responsiveness over the past decade, we have used it as an opportunity to advocate to our clients to include these values in their designs. Vince stresses that we also create guidelines for tenants that encourage them to be cognizant of Indigenous principles and sensitivities through material selection, orientation and other design elements.

With the future of office and workplaces evolving and adopting to respond to the dynamic market, Vince has been using it as an opportunity to advocate for more involvement with our Indigenous partners and connections in the industry. Whether it’s through an engagement session between our clients and an Indigenous community or the inclusion of a smudging ceremony at a grand opening, Vince is excited at the prospect of being the conduit to include more voices at the design table.

Truth and Reconciliation in residential architecture

Meeting with partner Jonny Hehr, we worked through the nuances of housing design in Canada through the lens of Truth and Reconciliation. Projects in this sector are crucial in creating a sense of place for people, connecting to the past present and future of the land they are situated on while prioritizing the lived experience of the people who live there. Multi-family residential spaces in urban settings require incorporating opportunities for placemaking within units that are structured to have a diverse cross-section of the population within it. All successful, interesting and vibrant communities house multiple demographics within one space. Offering more diverse price points within the same functional space, creating spaces that adapt to the way people are living now and not having a retroactive/reductive view of cultural needs while still accounting for traditional practices or features that would accommodate these things for the present population and would also benefit other groups.

We work to use housing and architecture as a tool to tell the story of the land and of the people who inhabit it—reflective of the resilience of its setting and users but that improves its surroundings on the grounds of its existence. It’s the creation of these closed-loop systems that take the gifts we’ve been given through the land and turn them into something we can give back to it. Through the design phase, this means understanding that developing relationships is worth as much if not more than the binary answers you would get from answering or asking specific questions—not seeing yourself as satisfied and having the penultimate knowledge of the land you are building on or the people who call that place home. It means being humble and open to learning continually from various people and resources to develop a well-rounded approach unique to each community, client and project and working to create homes that are adaptive to the environmental conditions and seasonal differences in light that impact people’s physical and mental health. Often it’s those little moments where the built environment can offer refuge to the human psyche. In projects, you need to identify the moments that are worth fighting for. The ones that could have the greatest potential impact on the people using those spaces. Developing a sense of reciprocity with the land that holds histories that should be both celebrated and commemorated solemnly.

A playful mural at Neoma’s daycare, Calgary’s first office-to-residential conversion for affordable housing, features local Indigenous artwork as part of approach to Truth and Reconciliation in architecture.

Truth and Reconciliation at GGA

GGA’s partners echo the sentiments of designers, technologists, contract administrators and business staff who incorporate acts of reconciliation into their day-to-day work and personal lives. Our office culture is centred around continuing education which is provided through several in-house programs (e.g., Lunch and Learn, Elevate, Women in Design) along with the opportunity for staff to attend external workshops.

Our ethos is to share resources, knowledge and education opportunities through our collaborative open studio environment, which helps strengthen our ability to advocate and build relationships with the Indigenous communities whose traditional lands our projects are on. We have pursued further training in IAP2 and culturally sensitive engagement strategies to ensure we can respectfully incorporate Indigenous perspectives and values into our design process. We recognize the inspiration we draw from Treaty 7 in our professional and personal lives and endeavour to produce regionally responsive buildings, reflecting the natural environment they envelop while being sustainable.

Over the coming months, we have several internal events planned that will highlight the work of Indigenous people in our community. GGA is planning a drum circle and storytelling session with Cree8 and has recently donated to the Awo Taan Healing Lodge Society. We are organizing and upcoming Lunch and Learn on Indigenous architectural principles as well as a Women in Design session that will focus on a female Indigenous leader from the architectural and engineering profession.

We know that Canada has a long road ahead in furthering acts of reconciliation, advocacy and inclusion. GGA has consulted with Indigenous professionals from Treaty 7 to develop internal policies and practices that demonstrate our commitment to reconciliation and foster a culture of awareness, transparency, continual learning and advocacy. We look forward to continuing to build these relationships with our clients, community and landscape, moving continually towards a better future for the people of Treaty 7 and beyond.


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