(Click here for the “Introduction to the Alberta Métis Settlements“)
Neighbouring Kikino is Buffalo Lake Settlement, an area originally called “Beaver River Colony #7” that was set aside by the government’s Métis Rehabilitation Branch for Métis war veterans returning from World War II. These veterans, however, mostly chose to return to the areas where their families were already living and therefore the territory remained largely unsettled until the 1950s when it was officially opened following the registration of a small number of Métis settlers through the Kikino administration office.
Despite the establishment of Buffalo Lake now recognized as occurring during the 1950s, the area had also been an essential regional hub for trading and many significant Métis hivernant (winterer) camps during the 19th century. Archeological research done by Maurice Doll, Robert Kidd, and John Day during the 1970s and 80s clearly indicates the importance of the area during the fur-trade years, describing it as “among the largest centres of population in the North-West of Canada.” (1)
Indeed, 1872-1873 was the first known year of large-scale year-round settlement. Evidently, those who made their living by hunting out from St. Albert were not using the place as merely the outer point of the hunts, or even as a trading centre en route to the herds and back. Buffalo Lake was now the home to which a winterer returned. (2)
The authors further suggest that the migration specificities of Buffalo Lake, including an emphasis on the southward movement of northern populations, as opposed to the western migration from Red River, resulted in a culture they describe as “essentially indigenous in origin” and that this “produced a more homogenous society than may have been the case in other parts of the Canadian Prairies, particularly Red River.” (3) Related to this, in Life and Times of the Metis: A History of Caslan Metis Settlement, Elenor Verbicky writes that,
…most of those who took up land during the first decade of the Settlement’s history [1950s] had been living in the general vicinity – at locations such as Buck Lake, Lac La Biche Mission and Long Lake. Many of those early settlers were persuaded to move to Caslan by friends and relatives who were already living there. (4)
The relevance from an architectural perspective is to recognize that the Alberta Métis communities’ relationship to Red River is complex as Métis residents didn’t solely emerge from westward migration. It is not surprising then, that in places like Buffalo Lake and the other settlements there are very little construction consistencies with some of the earlier Métis communities (i.e. no Red River frames etc.) as their building traditions likely came from a range of different sources. The cabins studied by the Doll research team were instead determined to be built rather hastily with very basic detailing and construction, mostly with one room (although they do note that their ‘Cabin 5’ suggested a more complex building possibly with indoor connecting structures). Their research concludes, with regards to the 19th century hivernant community that “more sophisticated architecture should exist at Buffalo Lake, given the rather complex nature of the community that occupied the site,” especially when compared to some of the neighbouring trading posts and communities. (5)
The Buffalo Lake Métis community of the 19th century, however, bears little resemblance to the one that exists today. Roughly 70 years separated the abandonment of the site (following the decline of the fur trade and the economical shifts of the region) and the reestablishment of the Settlement. Today, the community has grown and proudly exhibits, for example, a new administration building and Cultural Interpretive Centre that sits next to the creek and atop a subtle hill. Infrastructure manager Bruce Gordon explained that an aboriginal person named Durocher designed the building and though they originally wanted it on the lake to be next to the water, it was too far from their other facilities. In walking the site, they took notice of the view from the hill; “It’s a nice spot to be sitting up here. You know I think the aboriginal people always like to see what’s around them…which was nice because of the lay of the creek here, in behind here, we’re actually going to develop some spot at the bend in the river where people are going to sit and enjoy their coffee or cigarette or whatever.” (6) One of the leading factors in receiving the funds to build the facility was that it is heated by geothermal. As Gordon proudly notes, “…we do have Mother Earth heating this place. We have…about 20 holes drilled here on the north side of the building.” (7) The community is also currently considering adding solar panels and have a water treatment plant using compressors to aerate their ponds. Gordon is also considering wind tribunes.
Though the building is rather straightforward in its design, a few details embrace the symbology of Métis culture at Buffalo Lake. The blue standing seam roof of the administration building against the Albertan sky, for instance, recalls the Métis flag itself, while the flooring inside the main office embalms the settlement’s logo and two rough timber posts mark the main entrance. Inside the cultural centre is a small gallery including a quilt inspired by the community’s history, as well as a number of artifacts related to the history of the community. Spaces, though many not in use yet, were designed to hold workshops on Métis art and music, for instance.
Similar to the other settlements, however, the history of the built environment at Buffalo Lake is also deeply tied to log construction. Elder Glen Auger recalls living in a log house with a sod roof as a child. He also distinctly remembers his and the other families at the time, pitching tents while they built their homes in the 1950s.
According to Auger, they built their homes out of logs with tar paper roofs, and used grass and mud, before painting them with white lime. They used 1″ x 6″ rough lumber for flooring and white tar paper on the interiors, like wall paper. They used axes and saws (buzz cut) as tools, and he remembers working with fellow community members (a requirement of them for their residency) to build a log school with a large 100 gallon barrel water heater. He particularly remembers the tall windows in the school.
The building of this school was a requirement of their residency in the Settlement as settlers had the following responsibilities: 1) to build a home suitable for a family to live in, 2) to clear a minimum of ten acres of land, and 3) to contribute to the construction of the school described by Auger. As Verbicky writes,
In 1950, while negotiations to open the Settlement were taking place, a few men took the first step involved in building the school. They understood that construction of a school was the main requirement of the first settlers in Caslan, and with the hope that the Settlement would soon be open, they began work on the project. Sam Shott recalls how the building was gradually given form. “…[We] called a meeting, got the men together, so we’d know who was willing to cut logs for the school…this was in 1950. We let the logs sit one year to dry. Then, in the fall of 1951, Felix Laroque, George Laroque, Freddie Laroque, and I built the school. Mr. Felix Laroque hewed the logs on two sides so that they would fit together better. We put moss between the logs and used drop siding.” (8)
Verbicky further notes that a year long delay in construction due to lack of material nearly caused the government-appointed Supervisor, A. C. McCully, to withdraw their Family Allowance. McCully issued the following statement: “It is your fault that there is no school and unless you immediately turn out and finish the school and supply the teacher with plenty of fuel, I will be forced to take the matter up with the Superintendent of Family Allowance and have your payments discontinued.” (9) This interaction between the supervisor and the residents with regards to the school is a glaring example of the paternalistic relationship between the government and the Settlements during their foundational years.
Similar to the other settlements, this paternalistic relationship extended to the homes offered to residents. Gordon recalls his experience of obtaining his home as such: “I did want a log house and I had a place overlooking the lake…the way I want to live actually…in the wilderness. Not way in the wilderness, but back in the bush where there’s peace and quiet and animals and birds…[but] I didn’t get to build that log house.” (10) Instead, explains Gordon, the options offered by the government and the allotted budget were, and are, most often the determining factors for the design of buildings in the Settlement.
We’re kind of stuck with materials that you can get out of the yard, the lumber yard…I know a lot of people don’t like the vinyl siding and they’d rather even go to stucco or something different…I’ve heard people talk…they’d rather have a log home rather than this type of thing…I don’t even think they find these homes as warm or comfortable, they want a sense of feeling at home. It’s just a structure that they’re living in. No real home feeling to it. Decorate it as much as you want with skins and artifacts and whatever, but you still have a European built home…(11)
Gordon’s comments about the homes at Buffalo Lake seemingly resonates with many of the other buildings here and on the other settlements – buildings that generally perform in terms of thermal comfort and water protection, but there is often a sense of disconnect between them, the culture, and the landscape.
An excellent example of this is the gymnasium at Buffalo Lake. As Gordon describes,
Our gymnasium that was built, built to code, but we wanted [people] to know that basically you’re in a Métis community when you come into it, so we had kids at Caslan school [do] the big mural…We [also] had our children paint the interior of the centre. 5×12 panels – each space had something by the children about our aboriginal ways. Somebody went and painted over the art. (12)
The mural was completed through a ‘arts smart’ program that brought in artists to lead week-long arts programs at the school. Ian Mulder, an artist who had previously worked with the Tallcree First Nation near Fort Vermillion and who is now an intern architect in Toronto, led the students (as young as grade 1) in designing and painting the mural. Mulder fondly recalls how everyone was involved in the project and how the school ‘abounded with arts at the time.’ (13)
Yet, as I have discussed in an essay for the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada (see future post), although the mural is an excellent example of participatory art and community spirit, it is also an excellent example of the complete failure of the architecture to identify with the community on its own. Gordon’s description clearly indicates the community felt no connection to the recreation centre or its presence in the community, and while there are sound examples of buildings that have taken great strides in achieving this, including some of the houses, schools, and administration buildings I have documented on this blog, for example, there are also many missed opportunities for the built environment (residential, industrial, public, etc.) to better weave itself into the cultural pride and aspirations of the Métis people.
(1) Doll, M. F. V., Kidd, R. S., and Day, J. P. 1988. The Buffalo Lake Metis site: A Late nineteenth century settlement in the parkland of central Alberta. Edmonton: Alberta Culture and Multiculturalism Historical Resources Division. p.9.
(2) Ibid. p.32.
(3) Ibid. p.12
(4) Verbicky, E. (ed.). 1984. Life and Times of the Metis: A History of Caslan Metis Settlement. Edmonton: Alberta Federation of Metis Settlement Associations. p. 18.
(5) Doll et al. p. 233
(6) Personal interview, August 8, 2014.
(8) Verbicky et al. p.21-2.
(9) Verbicky, p.22.
(10) Personal interview, August 8, 2014.
(13) Personal email, July 14, 2015.