It was during his education at the Univeristy of Manitoba that architect Shawn Bailey found special inspiration in his Métis heritage and his unique upbringing, having been raised in a remote area of Lake of the Woods, Ontario. For a significant portion of his youth, his family had no road access and would thus travel back and forth to town by a homemade fan boat “during the in-between seasons,” and an ice road during the winter. Being situated within such a rich natural context, with his father taking him and his sister on many of his excursions as a regional trapper, thus provided Bailey with a certain sensitivity and respect towards nature that has deeply impacted his approach to design thinking. Though mostly detached from much of his indigenous heritage throughout his developmental years, for Bailey (now a member of the Métis Nation of Ontario), reflecting on his heritage has become central to his approach to architecture in that, “Indigenous ways of thinking seek to explore reciprocal responsibilities and mutual obligations, not only between humans, but also the more-than-human world.”
Reciprocity is key to Bailey’s overall design interests as demonstrated by his graduate thesis at the UofM for an Anishinaabe Roundhouse located on Tunnel Island “common ground”, in Kenora, Ontario, a property owned by both indigenous and non-indigenous people. The project explored relationships between building systems, parametric design, and analogue methods of working, in the context of cross-cultural exchange and interplay. As he describes in a 2017 interview, “My thesis shared a vision of people living side by side, learning from each other, sharing with each other, and finding harmony in common ground, while continuing to honour the distinct elements of each culture.”
For Bailey, the current moment in Canadian history, “as exemplified by the Idle No More movement and a renewed focus on resolving outstanding treaty obligations,” offers immense opportunity “to develop new, emerging, and novel methods, approaches and traditions that reflect an equitably shared contribution from all parties.” Now a partner at Boreal Studio Inc., his explorations have continued into his professional projects, including a Sharing Centre for the Ochiichagwe’babigo’ining (Dalles) First Nations, designed as a fusion between vernacular Anicinabe and contemporary approaches to thinking and building.
As Bailey explains, “We were approached by the Ochiichagwe’babigo’ining (Dalles) First Nation to assist with a concept for a multi-purpose facility that would house several service and tourism related programs. We started the process by asking the question; how can architecture culturally educate members of the community, share with non-community members and provide economic development?” The program includes a wild rice and meat processing area, classrooms, conference rooms, an interior and exterior gathering space, and food services that would support large gatherings and cabins located throughout the site, with the goal to educate community members, share with non-community members, and boost economic development.
For Bailey, it is better understanding the cross-cultural relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous worldviews that is essential to the future trajectory of indigenous architecture, something he feels Métis design could provide a distinct contribution towards. As he explains,
The elders in Kenora talk about two canoes, paddling in parallel for eternity, with their paths never crossing. Some Elders indicate that as part of the teachings the first 7 generations of the relationship were meant to establish the foundations. The next 7 generations are for re-defining and refining the relationship, and turning it into something completely new and novel. I feel that part of the process of learning to harmonize and find common ground will necessarily require developing new, emerging, and novel methods, approaches and traditions that reflect an equitably shared contribution from all parties. This is where I see an architecture of reciprocity as being very important and valuable for moving this emerging cross-cultural relationship forward.
Similar to other Métis designers, it is Bailey’s emphasis on testing out material and construction possibilities, focused on fusing together indigenous and non-indigenous worldviews, that allows current technologically-oriented topics in architecture (parametrics, material innovation, digital fabrication, etc.), the space to reconsider cultural expression and contemporary interpretations of traditional ways. This seems central to understanding the future of indigenous design topics moving forward.