(Click here for the “Introduction to the Alberta Métis Settlements“)
Located approximately 55km south of Lac La Biche, Alberta, lies Kikino Métis Settlement. Originally known as “Goodfish Lake Area No.7” and then part of what was named “Beaver River Colony No. 7”, Kikino was officially renamed by the community (as suggested by Joe Morin) after the Cree word for ‘our home’ in 1941. (1) It has a land base of around 45,000 hectares and a population hovering around 1,000 people. Similar to Elizabeth there is a community centre that includes the administration building, Aboriginal Head Start building, a new community centre, and the school, as well as a number of homes within walking distance to these facilities, along with a store, churches, playing fields and a few other buildings.
During a conversation with council chairman, Floyd Thompson, it became immediately apparent that buildings played a significant role in the cultural identity of Kikino and a tour through the community confirmed this. The image of the log home remains vivid in the folklore of the settlements and it is often revived through the memories of the elders. Edward Bellerose, for example, writes about these early homes at Kikino in Bill Miller’s edited book called Our Home: A History of Kikino Metis Settlement.
The settler would bring his logs to the mill and get them cut. These logs were sawed on two sides and then they were mudded with mud and grass. Some put lumber siding on and painted the siding white. The roofing they used was wood shingles. These shingles were cut from spruce blocks and were made into various sizes. The homes built then were usually two stories high. (2)
Similarly, the renown Métis leader and poet Adrian Hope, writes,
I pulled up by Whitefish Lake up here and I seen some great big trees of dried poplar. And I thought that will make a house. I hauled them down. I hauled them down, four each day, hewed them and put them in their place. When I had nine, by God, I had them high as this wall…nine big logs. But I had to get some slabs or something to put on top for a roof. And I finally got some slabs. I went to the old sawmill and picked out my slabs. Slabs on top; trimmed them up a little bit. Then I went and made hay. I came home with a big load of hay and I put half the load on top of my roof. Ani started digging dirt and put dirt on top. Finally I had it all covered. That fall I plastered the outsides. I had a little cook stove in there. No Floor! Every once in a while I had to put a bunch of hay down to keep the dust out. And we lived there. (3)
There are various examples that continue this legacy of the original log construction at Kikino; for instance, the prominent gable/pitched roof and wood siding on the administration building and the cabins and office/store at the prominent vacation destination – Kikino Silver Birch Resort.
These cabins continue a resurgence in log construction in Kikino which has been recently influenced by Jack Lynis, a local builder who returned to the settlement from the lucrative Alberta oil industry to build a log home during the 1980s. Lynis taught himself how to build with logs and subsequently led courses in other settlements such as Gift Lake.
Lynis’s reputation has grown in the area as he was further commissioned to construct a picnic shelter at Lac La Biche Golf Course where he cut and hewed all of the logs with minimal help outside of his chainsaw and basic tools.
While these kinds of images of log homes and buildings have unquestionably played a central role in Métis cultural identity here and on the other settlements, there have been other significant contributions here specifically. For example, it is Kikino School that Chairman Thompson described as delivering a unique and proud precedent for Métis schools at the time of its construction during the 1980s.
Designed by Koliger Schmidt architects from Edmonton, Kikino School won a Canadian Architect Award of Excellence in 1986. According to Thompson, the massing of the building was broken down into more of a village to avoid the imposition of a monolithic structure (and the negative spatial links to residential schools). The towers reference the significant role of the church and European influences on Métis culture, while the wood (in the original design) and colourful design motifs were inspired by Métis and First Nations art and design. In the jurors comments for the award, it is evident there were reservations about “vernacular” references in design at the time. Albertan architect Gordon Atkins noted that interpretations of aboriginal cultures tended to “set aside all native beliefs and sensitivities”, while George Baird similarly stated that, “efforts to incorporate ‘vernacular’ and ‘minority culture’ motifs into the architecture of our time more often than not have failed.” (5) Both, however, agreed this building accomplished its goals and successfully expressed its local context. The third juror, Jim Murray, felt that the “visual cultural objectives [used in the school] may be over-emphasized”, for instance the ‘monumental treatment’ of the gymnasium exit door (above) compared to the main entry, but he also emphasized that the building had “architectural lessons that far transcend this simple and appealing building.” (6)
In subsequent discussions with the managing partner, Bruce Koliger, it became evident that the Japanese architect and lead designer, Yoshi Natsuyama, carefully researched and considered the unique opportunity of designing for a Métis community in this project – a community he knew nothing about when it started. As Koliger describes,
I also recall that he [Natsuyama] camped out on the site for a night wanting to, as he put it, ‘sense the air and feel the ground’. When we presented the design to the community, one of the elderly ladies present started shouting ‘Why does it look like a church?’. We were told later that she was a residential school survivor. A younger woman described it as ‘every child’s fantasy’ and someone else joked that they would be able to see the troops coming from the loft area. I can still remember the day the school officially opened. It was nearly an all day event with probably the entire community in attendance. The children performed and I especially remember being quite taken with the clog dancers. Architecture is often a difficult profession and certainly a very tough business, but days like that made it seem worthwhile. (7)
Below are a series of images of the project as it originally appeared before subsequent decisions were made to replace the wood siding and timber frame structure in the courtyard, as well as some of the colourful patterns.
One of the project’s final renderings (below) convincingly captures a compelling architectural vision of Métis culture from a designer who knew nothing of it previously. This is an essential, and complex, aspect of the role of design that will be explored throughout this research project – the role of the ‘foreigner’ or ‘outsider’ in contributing to the evolution of Métis culture.
Kikino thus exhibits many essential aspects of the role of architecture in the settlements. First, it confirms that log construction remains a desirable means of building and that the use of wood transcends a simple nostalgia for the original settlers’ homes. It is a way of connecting with the landscape in a material way akin to Natsuyama’s efforts to link the environment to the visitor through the wind turbines atop the school towers. However, what emerges as a central contribution to Métis culture through building here is a dialogue between people like Jack Lynis and Yoshi Natsuyama. One is of the land, of the heritage, and who will always be meaningfully connected to Kikino through his work and his family. Natsuyama camped on the land and met with local people, before leaving behind a building that was envisioned to be distinctly Métis – despite there being very little precedent for what such an endeavour might be. These are the kinds of stories that are essential to this project and will be explored further detail as we visit more communities and individuals.
(1) Miller, B. 1984. Our home: A history of Kikino Metis settlement. Edmonton, AB: Alberta Federation of Metis Settlements. p. 20.
(2) Ibid. p. 16.
(3) Ibid. p. 28.
(4) phone interview, August 6, 2014
(5) “Award of Excellence: Kikino Elementary School, Kikino, Alberta.” 1986. Canadian Architect, 31:12, December, 12-15.
(7) personal email dated August 14, 2014.
(8) personal email dated March 8, 2015.