(Click here for the “Introduction to the Alberta Métis Settlements”)
Approximately 40 km southeast of High Prairie lies East Prairie Settlement, population approximately 812. (1) As the last of my settlement visits during the summer of 2014, East Prairie adequately summarized my journey through its consistency with the other settlements but also offered a few exceptional examples of design thinking distinct to the settlements. The housing throughout East Prairie was mostly consistent with the other settlements, the community centre also sharing characteristics of a very adequate school, an administrative office attached to a community hall, and various other community buildings – one with timber posts framing its entry (as seen at the administration building at Buffalo Lake, for example).
During a fruitful conversation with Public Works Coordinator John Supernault there emerged a strong sense of tension existing between tradition and ‘modern’ at East Prairie. Initially the settlement lacked essential infrastructure as Supernault recalled walking through the deep snow to get to school given to the lack of roads. Yet even as roads were built, as Paul Driven explains, the settlement was still relatively isolated from its neighbours during the 1980s.
Moreover, while the construction of new roads during the past decade has given the members of all three colonies greater access to the local towns, even this has not had that much of an effect on the relationship between the Euro-Canadians and the colony-dwelling Metis…With geographical and social distance separating the Euro-Canadian population from Metis townsmen and colony-dwellers in this way, both segments of of the Metis population are thus clearly distinguished from their Euro-Canadian neighbours. (2)
Driven’s conclusion is that “the East Prairie settlers seem to experience no more difficulty in maintaining their identity than either their Euro-Canadian or Cree neighbours.” (3) The improvement of the roads, for example, made various commodities more available and has an immense impact on the community. Most of the buildings have been ‘modernized’, Supernault explained, though they are restricted with what they can do by the government. He felt that the buildings and homes on the settlement are generally adequate though he admitted there is plenty of ongoing renovations and repairs.
For Supernault, within the settlement there is often a tendency to “upgrade out of the old and into the new,” and a need to catch up to what others are doing, including nearby Hutterite colonies, for example. (4) For both Supernault and his mother Margaret, ‘white society’ is impacting the Métis here. Supernault explained that the young people on the settlement often “see the outside world and they want it.”(5) He commented that rap music now influences their youth while Margaret cited Facebook and social media as primary interests for youth over things like quilting and crafts. Similarly, she explains that the house that she currently lives in, while satisfactory, is “just a house” while adding that “the log house was our house. We liked living there. But there was also the longing to have a better house. Neighbour has a house with lumber. We’d feel like we’d be happier.”(6) When it comes to craftsmanship and the use of traditional hand tools, for example, Supernault explains that while people still do activities such as gardening on the settlement, the reality is that they also ‘have the IGA.’
Yet, similar to previous discussions with community members in the other settlements, Supernault also noted that there are community members still doing beadwork and jewelry, moccasin making, and hide tanning, for instance, as well as programs teaching the children to jig. His mother similarly explained that all of the native women do something such as beading or working with porcupine quills. The school also supports many cultural initiatives. There are remnants of Red River culture here as well. Supernault spoke little English growing up and though he was raised speaking Cree, he also recalls his grandparents speaking a Michif dialect, referring to many objects in French. Thus, there remains a strong sense of tradition and a belief in the ‘old ways’ for some people at East Prairie and this is not exclusive to the elders. An architectural example of this is a minimalist log hunting cabin that sits in a remote area of the settlement with a spectacular view of the surrounding landscape.
Yet some of the more intriguing discoveries at East Prairie was the suggestion of more hybrid approaches to building that combine traditional and non-traditional design and construction. One example was a log built home with saddle-notch corners but with contemporary finishes and interior. The folding of the angled Mansard-like roof to cover a porched area suggests an updated version of older log homes on the settlements.
However, it was a home in a remote part of the settlement, designed and built by a resident who has made an intentional shift back to a more traditional lifestyle (hunting for food, regular sweats, etc.), that presented the most unique and insightful example of design distinctly linked to its Métis context. Located on the edge of a remote area of muskeg (low-lying marsh or bog), the house embodies a unique blend of traditional and non-traditional design and construction.
A first essential note is how the house responds to its muskeg landscape, tucked into the trees but with a second-level wrapped balcony to afford ample views of its surroundings.
Also noteworthy, however, is the construction of the house which begins at the ground level with 12″x12″ hewn logs, notched and stacked at the corners, but then transitions to wood framing and plywood sheathing above.
The interior of the home similarly displays rustic elements (i.e. rough timber posts, wood burning stove, hunting rifle, traditional medicines hung to dry) and manufactured ones (i.e. corrugated plastic panels, coloured skylights, prefabricated doors, and framing connectors – even a Marcel Breuer Cesca-inspired chair). The siting of the home also suggests a certain level of thoughtfulness about the landscape.
The Muskeg House thus clearly suggests that a distinct approach to design and construction in the Alberta Settlements is possible and exists. Its details are ad-hoc and not what one would expect from a formal, or even vernacular, “architecture” where crafted details are the essence of the act of building. Design decisions don’t appear to follow precedence; the references are mixed and confused. Yet the combination of traditional elements (from the bear skin drying outside of the house and the rough timber posts on the main floor) and prefabricated commodities arguably suggest a unique blending of material cultures and values distinct to this Alberta Métis settlement.
Lastly, as in the other settlements, there are also fine examples of vernacular artifacts in the form of meat drying structures. Though varied in their approaches, these have emerged as one of the more obvious links between the material cultures of the settlements.
(2) Driben, P. 1985. We are Metis: The ethnography of a halfbreed community in Northern Alberta. New York: AMS. pp.147, 149.
(3) Ibid. p.154
(4) Personal interview. August 15, 2014.