(Click here for the “Introduction to the Alberta Métis Settlements“)
Located directly east of Peavine is Gift Lake Settlement, with a population of approximately 1,300. (1) Of the six settlements visited, Gift Lake has one of the highest density of residential buildings directly in the community centre with many homes within walking distance of the school, churches, and other community amenities (Kikino is another). Vern Cunningham, Gift Lake Housing Coordinator, explained that there is a sense of pride in this aspect of the settlement, that people are generally proud of the community and its overall beauty. Elders Coordinater Dale Laderoute similarly described Gift Lake as “a clean community. People are proud to be here…[there is] pride in maintaining this.”(2).
Despite the importance of the town centre (Cunningham noted that 80% of people live “in town”), there are also a number of acreages scattered throughout the territory as with the other settlements. Also consistent with the others, the majority of these homes were designed and provided by Nelson Homes as one of the outcomes of the Alberta Métis Settlements Accord in 1989. Cunningham explained that over 200 houses were built throughout the settlements in the years following the accord. This followed the previous housing programs during the 1970s which provided the earlier discussed trailer homes and wood framed houses. Many of these abandoned homes can be seen throughout the settlement.
Cunningham, like others on the settlement, worked as a journeyman during the 90s as the government used local labour for the houses. Vocational colleges (for example, Northern Lakes College in Grouard) provided education for residents to learn trades such as carpentry which was essential for them to participate in the building of the community.
For Cunningham, the built environment at Gift Lake, however, is not necessarily tied to Métis culture. The last log house, he recalled, was owned by a man named Donald Laderoute, and while he believes a few hunting cabins remain in the bush, there are few, if any, buildings that meaningfully link to Métis history or identity. For Cunningham, this is not necessarily a loss in that the community is generally satisfied and he personally feels content with ‘the ways things are’. Despite the various shortfalls in terms of budget constraints (Cunningham noted that some of the houses should have been built with full basements instead of crawl spaces) and the constant need for repairs, the town aspect of the settlement provides a sense of pride and community for the residents as well as safety for the youth and the buildings are generally adequate.
Like Cunningham, Laderoute emphasized that Métis culture is alive on the settlement through fiddle music and dancing, the wearing of sashes for special occasions, blanket making, and needle work, for example. Settlement residents still hunt moose (though their population has been depleted), elk, and some elders still hunt rabbit. But for Laderoute, “the built environment is not structured for culture.” Instead, he explained, the buildings are intended to improve overall living conditions, including priorities such as health.
This perceived gap between Gift Lake culture and their buildings, however, has been somewhat mended through the recently opened education facility that replaces the previous school, permanently closed in 2014 for health reasons. Beginning in 2012, the lead architectural team, Group2 from Edmonton, arranged for a series of visioning charettes (community engagement discussions) where the team asked the community what were the key values, goals, and outcomes for the replacement school to strive for. Given that the project also included new space for the Northern Lights College and the community’s Best Start Program, much emphasis in these sessions was having the complex act as a “positive component of [community] life”, offering universal access and being inclusive and open. Other key values from this session included words like transformative, durable, adaptable, clean, environmentally friendly, and collaborative. (3)
But also essential in these early sessions were the following values: empowering, cultural uniqueness, aboriginal education excellence, pride, to be ‘cherished’ by the community, and self-determination. The list of goals similarly included aspiring to sustainable construction, flexible shared spaces, meeting deadlines, retaining and educating students, aesthetically pleasing, and having a ‘state of the art facility’. Yet, two phrases that particularly relate to the current study were ‘reflect culture’ and ‘unique to Gift Lake’. Hidden in the list of outcomes is similarly an ‘historical aspect to [the] school’. (4) These transferred to the next steps in designing the school which included a summary of the values, goals, and outcomes in the Design Development Report. Goals for the spatial design (linked to the more physical aspects of the school) included the following: state of the art, adaptable, replicable model for future rural initiatives, safe and secure environment, functional, durable, inspiration, and express/celebrate history and tradition. (5)
The below adjacency diagram illustrates how these visioning exercises manifested in terms of dealing with the multi-use program and the planning of the building, including its siting and access points. While this is not visual in terms of typical architectural associations, in terms of programming, this exercise of planning the building emerges directly from the unique programming requirements of Gift Lake Settlement.
The exterior of the building is where the links to Métis culture appear most visually. The Alberta Métis Settlements logo appears at the entry glazing, as well as a sash that runs over the glazing on either side. The multi-coloured brick is a chevron pattern that relates to Métis graphic design and weaving patterns and a wood soffit makes a subtle nod to the historical use of wood on the settlement. The floor finish plan also suggests an orang/red-dyed concrete pattern at the entry of the building that is reminiscent of the sash.
Though not described in any detail in the Design Development Report, in an article in the South Peace News principal Barb Laderoute noted she is most proud of the the colours used in the school. The article describes them as such:
The colours chosen are from the Metis sash. The colour variations include: red, which is the historical depicted colour for the Metis sash; blue and white, symbolizing the colours of the Metis Nation flag; green, signifying fertility, growth and prosperity and; black, symbolizing the dark period in which the Metis people had to endure dispossession and repression. (6)
To what level the building user will ever understand the symbology of the colours is debatable but it is revealing that lengths were taken to search for the identity of the Gift Lake Métis through design. Like Kikino school, the designers were not from the settlement and worked with the community to identify the most pertinent aspects of their culture that could be translated into architecture.
The community’s involvement with the formation of the school and its design decisions was critical for Group2 to arrive at their overall design strategy and it is encouraging to see how questions about Métis culture and design-related topics were prioritized in this case. But there undoubtedly remains a question of what would constitute a Métis architecture or a Métis design process. Is there a perceivable sense of Métis culture here? Is the history of the settlement celebrated in the building’s experience? How will this learning centre affect the evolving sense of identity and sense of place at Gift Lake?
(2) Personal interview. August 14, 2014.
(3) “Gift Lake Replacement School Visioning Workshop Summary_Jan18th & 19th.pdf”. Working document used with permission by Group2 Architecture and Interior Design.
(5) “Gift Lake Replacement School Design Development Report.” Working document used with permission by Group2 Architecture and Interior Design.
(6) Clegg, C. 2013. “Construction to begin immediately: Gift Lake Learning Centre Sod Turning Ceremony.” South Peace News. Available online.