An Indigenous sense of place

Photo: Concept for Indigenous Peoples' Space in Ottawa, collaboration between David T Fortin Architect Inc., Smoke Architecture, Wanda Dalla Costa Architect and Elder Winnie Pitawanakwat

Dr. David Fortin shared that Indigenous design is finally receiving the recognition it deserves.  

Public and private institutions alike are looking for designers to include Indigenous “elements” in the design of buildings and landscapes. But Fortin, a citizen of the Métis Nation of Ontario, cautions that Indigeneity isn’t an aesthetic.  

Honouring an Indigenous relationship to land requires a lot more than eco-friendly building materials, says Fortin, a professor in Waterloo’s School of Architecture.  

Dr. David Fortin

David Fortin
School of Architecture


“An Indigenous sense of place would be one where there is reciprocity with land; where we aren’t just taking from land but adding back to it in a way that benefits all of the life forms around us,” Fortin said. “I don’t want to just call it ‘sustainability.’ It’s a reverence for all life. Design should reflect relations that go beyond humans, to include animals and plants and water. All that stuff is sacred. That’s at the core of Indigenous design. There’s a spirituality to it.”  

Fortin and Adrian Blackwell (BES ’89, BArch ’91), a fellow Waterloo architecture professor, are members of Architects Against Housing Alienation: a collective of six Canadian architects, artists and academics who will represent Canada at the 2023 Venice Biennale, the international expo of the world’s architectural innovations and achievements.  

Raising awareness about Canada’s housing crisis 

Fortin and his curatorial team will be including Indigenous knowledge and perspectives in Canada’s pavilion, which the group hopes to transform into a campaign headquarters to raise awareness about, and offer solutions to, Canada’s housing crisis.   

“A housing crisis is not something the international community necessarily associates with Canada,” Fortin said. “The fact that we have the level of problems that we do is something the world should know about.”  

According to the National Bank of Canada’s housing report, an average-income household now pays more than half of its income towards a mortgage for a house in Canada’s cities. At the same time, Canadian renters have been caught up in the financialization trend as large investors have begun to buy rental properties as investments — and raise rents, often dramatically. 

A housing crisis is not something the international community necessarily associates with Canada.


It’s more than just “looking” more Indigenous 

“If our cities ‘look’ more Indigenous, but we still have economic disparity, more violence, more divisiveness and we’re still destroying the planet, I’m concerned that we are disrespecting the teachings,” Fortin said. “This is not a style. It’s a way of being in the world. We need a bigger societal shift in the way we inhabit the world.”  About 235,000 Canadians experienced homelessness in 2021. 

“Our focus is on those who have been totally punted out of the system. And that number is growing very quickly,” Fortin said. “Young graduates with university degrees who should have wonderful futures ahead of them are full of trepidation right now.”  

This isn’t Fortin’s first Biennale. Along with Plains Cree Professor and Canada Research Chair, Gerald McMaster, he was co-curator of Canada’s 2018 entry: Unceded: Voices of the Land, presented by internationally acclaimed Métis and Blackfoot architect Douglas Cardinal.   

Growing up in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, “a city kid,” Fortin said he “really loved calculus and statistics, and then also really loved to blast music and just draw.” He found his way to architecture when an undergraduate professor mentioned Italian architect Paolo Solari’s concept of arcology — a portmanteau of “architecture” and “ecology.” “I looked that up and saw these incredible drawings,” Fortin recalls. 

Sunshades with Métis floral beadwork pattern at Round Prairie Elders' Lodge, Saskatoon. Designed by David T Fortin Architect Inc.Sunshades with Métis floral beadwork pattern at Round Prairie Elders' Lodge, Saskatoon. Designed by David T Fortin Architect Inc. (Photo: J Surkan)


“I’ve always been a science fiction fanatic, and here were these visionary, futuristic worlds.” Architecture school in Calgary opened his mind to even more possibilities: “You see things you never would have imagined. And there’s a tremendous value to that.”  

At the same time, he notes, architectural education in the 1990s instilled a Eurocentric and individualistic definition of excellence. 

 “Architecture was being taught through a highly theoretical lens. There was a major emphasis on producing stuff that looked cool.” The result was often awe-inspiring buildings that lacked a relationship to their environments or the people who would live and work in them. “Even if you’re working in Saskatoon or Brooks, Alberta, you’re studying these multimillion-dollar projects in major urban centres, and that’s the architecture you’re taught you should reproduce.”   

This is not a style. It’s a way of being in the world.


The relationship between land, colonization and housing 

As an intern architect in some of Western Canada’s top firms, Fortin worked on high-profile projects, including multi-million-dollar homes. “It was a long way from where I’d started off in my interest in arcology. I was still thirsty for something, and I knew I needed to be asking bigger questions.” A PhD at the University of Edinburgh led to a professorship at Montana State University (MSU) and educational work with the Northern Cheyenne.  

“That was a period of my life where I was really thrown into questioning the relationship between land and colonization and housing,” Fortin said. “I started creating lectures on Native American architecture. I’d tell people, ‘I’m Metis, I’m from Canada,’ and people in the States would say, ‘What’s that mean?’”    

A pivotal project for Fortin was a design-build course he oversaw in Kenya while a professor at MSU. Kenyan subsistence farmers were finally growing surplus yields from improved breeds of potato. But the potatoes would rot before they could get to market. Fortin, his students, and their local collaborators designed a potato vault from surplus straw bales that sat on a gabion strip footing with a crushed sandstone floor to absorb moisture and regulate temperatures to preserve the harvest. “We built it in a way that could be replicated by the farmers themselves.  

“Much of what I’ve been doing since the potato-store project is trying to employ systems thinking to ask questions about why the world is the way that it is. The world isn’t just built. Builders typically build what was designed. And a lot of my Indigenous advocacy is to say, ‘Why is it this way?’ When I look at a reserve, or when I look at my Métis family history, understanding how people got there is crucial. Otherwise, you’re designing in a vacuum of — and becoming an arm of — the power systems that be, rather than helping.”  

An important part of the needed societal shift that aligns with Indigenous relationships to land, Fortin said, is finding new ways to think about housing — beyond individual, private land ownership.  

“On our last call, one of our collaborators pointed out that Canadians find it so easy to understand that we have schools and hospitals and sidewalks and curbs and stormwater systems as social infrastructure,” Fortin said. “But housing isn’t thought of like that here.”  

Architects Against Housing Alienation is consulting with more than 30 groups from across Canada, many of them having craved something to bring them together. “That’s something that we didn’t initially expect. We can use our platform to help bring those groups together and create a more unified voice. We left our call yesterday truly inspired as there was this sense of collective passion.   

“And that’s what this is about. It isn’t about us individually — we want to help mobilize all those voices.”  

Guiding Principle Diagram for Path to Healthy Housingproject with National Research Council Canada

Image: Guiding Principle Diagram for Path to Healthy Housing project with National Research Council  Canada. D. Fortin