Métis Domestic Thresholds and the Politics of Imposed Privacy

This paper was co-authored by David Fortin, Jason Surkan, and Dani Kastelein. It is published in the book “Our Voices: Indigeneity and Architecture”, published in 2018 and available for sale here.


The growing sense of domestic intimacy was a human invention as much as any technical device. Indeed, it may have been more important, for it affected not only our physical surroundings, but our consciousness as well.

–Rybcynzski, Home: A short history of an Idea, p.49


Image of Standardized Housing (Image: J Surkan)

You get a home. You get a package. You get a dollar amount that you are going to spend on that home and the building codes dictate…how that building is built and what kind of insulation, what kind of vapour barrier…vents and everything.

–Métis Elder Archie Collins, Elizabeth Settlement

The blurring of the private and public realms within the Métis[1] home is a concept intrinsic to understanding the historical underpinnings of the culture. It is well documented that one of the defining characteristics of Métis folk homes in 19th century central Saskatchewan was an open interior floor plan (Burley, 2000; Burley & Horsfall, 1989). Not only did this type of design provide flexibility due to its ample interior but it also allowed for expedient construction, “warmth, low building cost, possibilities for expansion,” and a crucial means to accommodate various community interactions, with the home often doubling as a dance hall, a funeral parlor, a social or political gathering space, and a place for daily interaction between immediate family members (City of Winnipeg, 1988, p. 4). For the Métis, partition walls would have impeded the opportunity for such large gatherings, acting as both a physical and metaphorical barrier to the sense of connection and community inherited from their First Nations relatives. As asserted by Diane Payment, the Métis family “valued the primacy of collectivity over the individual” and were “guided by principles of unity” (Payment, 1990, p. 38). Furthermore, David Burley documents the public/private dichotomy within Métis culture, stating that formality and privacy are not encountered within the home but rather there exists a “lack of boundedness” expressed within the range of activities occurring in the space (Burley, 2000, p. 35). It is for these reasons that crossing the threshold into the Métis domestic interior has been described as closer to the Plains teepee than that of the standard prairie farmhouse (Chandler, 2003).

Yet by the time the government(s) acknowledged their responsibility for providing housing to certain Métis communities across the prairies, a standard and compartmentalized interior quickly became the norm, dissolving the capacity for the Métis home to preserve its role as an inherently social space for communal living. Similar to housing programs imposed on First Nations and Inuit communities with communal domestic social arrangements (the igloo, the teepee, the pit house, the long house, etc.), a critical shift in Métis social relations ensued. This essay will postulate the role of imposed privacy in the breakdown of Métis social systems in the Canadian prairies and how this arguably contributed to an accelerated pace of cultural assimilation during the 20th century.

Imposed Delineation and the Métis

History has repeatedly shown that imposed spatial divisions and Métis values are simply incompatible. For example, from a Canadian colonial perspective, the dividing of land in Manitoba as per the Dominion Grid was a foregone conclusion following the acquisition of Rupert’s Land in 1870. Yet the Métis, under the leadership of Louis Riel and others, made one of their first acts of physical resistance not directly against the federal government or the incoming settlers from Ontario, but instead against the surveyors, those hired to re-demarcate the land as per a new imposed spatial system that directly conflicted with the existing Métis river lots along the Red River. Though similarly grounded in the notion of land ownership inherited from the French along the St. Lawrence, the river lots were consistent with Métis values of egalitarianism given that all families would have access to the river and the road, with houses close to each other for a greater sense of community, something the new grid could not provide. Thus, the new system was met with strong resistance, not only because it was perceived as a threat to Métis land ownership, but also because it would disturb Métis spatial and societal relationships with the land. Emblematic of these tensions, it was a surveyor, Thomas Scott, who was executed at Upper Fort Garry in 1870 by the Riel provisional government. This was followed by the second and final Métis resistance in 1885, also centred on “the nature of land surveys” (Harrison, 1985).

Figure 1. Salle River staked claims. Source: Roger Goulet, map of Salle River claims, no date, Archives of Manitoba, map collection, #234. http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/21/riellandclaims.shtml#019 ]

Despite their victory at Batoche in 1885, the Canadian government recognized the Métis were “numerous and potentially dangerous,” and thus threatened their plans for federal expansion into western Canada (Taylor, 1983, p. 156). Therefore, Métis land title was officially acknowledged through the controversial scrip system where their land was exchanged for money, or a newly surveyed equivalent, which legally terminated their aboriginal title through a convoluted and imbalanced process ultimately intended to “placate” them (Taylor, 1983, p. 156). However, even after scrips were issued, many Métis still did not see “owning” land being as important as “living on” it, with many continuing to “squat on random lots, not seeing the need to establish a permanent claim to any one place” (Harrison, 1985, p. 74). This supports David Burley‘s archaeological research into prairie Métis spatial orders in Saskatchewan, which concluded that, even after their shift from communal hunters to settled farmers, the Métis maintained an “organic, informal, unbounded, and open society with strong continuity in the human/nature relationship” (Burley, 2000, p. 32).

Scales of Delineation

The spatial collision of perspectives that initiated in Manitoba was not, however, an isolated one. According to Philip Wolfart, there exist two distinct ideologies governing boundaries and space which became increasingly divided during the European shift towards the establishment of nation states during the 18th century – the spatial and aspatial (Wolfart, 2012). The spatial sphere is defined by geographically bounded relationships, which involves the formation of social, economic, and political relationships by demarcating the ground and allowing boundaries to form. Conversely, an aspatial is based on a system of social obligations and behaviors that structure daily interactions.

Notions of these concepts exist cross culturally, in which most post-contact societies gradually adopted a more compartmentalized way of perceiving and utilizing space over time. This was the case in Canada towards the end of the eighteenth century which saw the transition into a more delineated world and this continues as the dominant spatial ideology today. This shift can be viewed at multiple scales; from the division of land described above to the organization of the home itself, involving the compartmentalization of space, or placing boundaries on what had been previously “traversable land.” Peter Ward discusses this shift in A History of Domestic Space: Privacy and the Canadian Home regarding the design of interior spaces during the transition into the nineteenth century, noting that, “Functionally their interior spaces became more spatialized [in houses in English Canada] while the lines between zones of relative privacy became more sharply inscribed” (Ward, 1999, p. 25).

Such privatization of the home had been occurring over the previous centuries throughout Europe, leading to a perception of shared domestic space as being “primitive,” or from medieval times when families slept and ate together in the same space before a perceived refinement of lifestyle led to more specialized patterns and spatial divisions to suit (Rybcynzski, 1987). Though the Métis have been recognized as having to concede to living within both European and Indigenous spatial perceptions, their domestic space and sociopolitical realms generally followed the latter. For example, Graham Chandler suggests that despite the symmetrical Georgian exterior of the Métis folk house, the open interior was the antithesis of a privatized domestic space and closer to that of the plains teepee (Chandler, 2003). Garnering a sense of community, even within the home, was thus at the forefront of a collective consciousness among the Métis people. Burley characterizes this perception and formation of domestic space as having a “lack of ‘boundedness” and this lack of a formally-defined structure within the home’s interior undoubtedly influenced the notions surrounding privacy (Burley, 2000).

Figure 2. Interior of a Metis house on the North West-Mounted Police trek west, 1874. Glenbow Archives NA-47-10.


Figure 3. A Lively Metis dance at Pembina, in an engraving published in Harper’s Monthly, 1860. Glenbow Museum. NA 1406-23.

The Open Interior

Contrasting colonial emphases on physically divided spaces, Indigenous social and spatial organization are often influenced by elements such as kinship, socio-cultural needs, culturally specific behaviors and lifestyle. This results in some significant differences concerning domesticity between contemporary Indigenous households and their Anglo or Euro-centric counterparts. Similar kinds of spatial relationships can be seen cross culturally from one Indigenous group to another. Examples include observations concerning Cree dwellings and social order by Adrian Tanner, and Paul Memmott’s writings on the architectural and social anthropology of Aboriginal Australians. Both Tanner and Memmott argue that these communities developed communal and familial structures that depended on the integration of centralized and flexible group spaces within and surrounding the home (Tanner, 2016). Specifically, Tanner characterizes these societal and spatial structures as “traditional organizations of space” (Tanner, 2016, p. 74).

Furthermore, the open floor plan not only provides increased flexibility, but rather allows for better social surveillance amongst family members. For example, both the 19th century Métis home’s central space and a gathering space designed by student-architects enrolled at the Université Laval’s School of Architecture, as per the request of their Innu partners, provide a clear view of the main entry threshold (Martin & Casault, 2005). Both Memmott and Métis Elder Maria Campbell have also commented on increased social surveillance within the context of Métis and Aboriginal Australian homes (Smith & Lommerse & Metcalfe, 2014). As Campbell (2016) recalls, if a grandmother was living in the home it was understood that she would sleep near the door to survey anyone coming or leaving the home. This offers her the ability to view the activities in the house by family members or visitors and brings into focus some stark differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous ideologies with regards to domestic boundaries and privacy.

Despite colonial attempts to restructure privacy for them, these design preferences for the aspatial continue to permeate Indigenous cultures today.  For example, current research by the authors suggest that contemporary Métis self-built home uphold these values (Fortin & Surkan, 2016), as do student design proposals for a communal gathering space within Innu homes (Martin & Casault, 2005). A number of sources further indicate a strong sense of social organization within Indigenous communities which support a more distinct communalistic structure than the more atomistic structure of European settlers (Knafla & Westra, 2010). Therefore this reality has had a considerable affect on the design of their domestic spaces, focusing on the integration of a flexible gathering area within the home as a way to reinforce their sense of community. This is especially true for the Métis open interiors of self-built homes.

However, it is essential to note that communal values do not eliminate the need for individuality. For example, a report on the mental health of Indigenous peoples cautions that [although] “Aboriginal cultures appear sociocentric in that the self is defined relationally and the well-being of family, band, or community is of central importance…this co-exists with strong support for individual autonomy and independence” (Kirmayer & Macdonald & Brass, 2000, p. 14). As an alternative to building walls to offer privacy, however, the Métis chose to rely on the few pieces of furniture as well as other items of their material culture to define the space. The area which comprised of the kitchen would often include a table placed near the wood burning stove found near the centre of the home where a few chairs might be present (Weinbender, 2003). As for the “bedrooms” or “bedroom,” these spaces were defined by a bed tucked in the corner of the space. Thus, while such a domestic space would have been perceived as primitive by the settlers, it was also imbued with relational meaning. As Rybczynski similarly notes regarding the medieval home, rules about dress and manners, and the scheduling of tasks and events governed the use of the space, and in it, “every object had a meaning and a place in life that was as much a part of its function as its immediate purpose, and these two were inseparable” (Rybczynski, 1986, p. 34). In addition to objects assisting in defining the space, as well as their intended purpose, behavior, social order, and long established cultural conventions were other elements which impressed themselves onto the home (Grøn, 1990). Consequently, changes in the spatial syntax of the Métis home initialized by the subsidized (and compartmentalized) housing initiatives undoubtedly contributed to changes in behaviors in the home, and possibly an increase in domestic forms of abuse and isolation due to this imposed privacy.


Figure 4. Interior of a Historical Métis Home at the site of Métis Crossing, AB. (Image: J Surkan)

Spatial Syntax and Flexibility in the Métis Home

The need for flexibility is essential when discussing how domestic space is viewed by different Indigenous cultures. As previously mentioned, the Métis did not introduce formal barriers or walls to create micro social environments within their homes; in fact, they required this flexibility to allow these moments to occur. For example, as Weinbender writes in Petite Ville “rooms appear to be open and multi-functional” (Weinbender, 2003, p. 144). Thus, for the Métis, the function, flexibility, and efficiency of the home was placed at the utmost priority. At times if additional means of privacy in the form of a physical barrier was required, a sheet or articles of clothing could be hung in order to divide the room (Fleury, 2016). However, it would appear through first and secondhand accounts, particularly having to do with the process of courtship, that the Métis did not require or prefer to rely on this particular method of dividing and allocating space. Instead, cultural methods of organization would be determined through kinship or by the age of the household member. For example, if a home had a second level, the younger children would sleep in the loft while older brothers and sisters, who required more privacy, had their own corner on the main floor along with other members of the family (Fleury, 2016). It is clear that these socio-cultural behaviors would have had an effect on the level of privacy between family members, particularly regarding the notion of increased surveillance.

In addition, courting behaviors among the Métis provide an excellent example of how specific cultural behaviors affect domestic thresholds as well as the notions of privacy. According to Gordon, courtship for the Métis occurred within the public sphere (Gordon, 2009). Similarly, Weinbender writes that, “The lack of privacy in Métis homes had some interesting effects on the courting” (Weinbender, 2003, p. 10). Due to the open floor plan, privacy was therefore maintained by introducing hushed voices, retreating to a more secluded area of the room, as well as other behaviors that support and protect personal interactions. For example, traditional encounters between couples would occur at the woman’s home, the men sharing a dinner, no matter the hour, as well as smoking a pipe, while the women cleared the table (Weinbender, 2003). These acts were most likely carried out to build some rapport between the parents and the male caller in question. The courting couple would then proceed to retreat to the most secluded corner of the room (Weinbender, 2003). Both Irene Gordon and Weinbender mention that the entire family would “suddenly act as though the couple were invisible,” allowing them to have a moment to themselves (Gordon, 2009, p. 20). Similarly, the couple would become oblivious to the presence of the family in order to show their affection to each other, seemingly not embarrassed if their conversation was overheard (Robinson, 1879). The couple would take this opportunity to exchange intimate conversation, gifts, or pet names, at times changing the language of some of the words being spoken to avoid “exposure” (Weinbender, 2003). The parents and younger siblings would also do their part in helping the couple create a private moment by participating in loud conversation in another corner of the room or occupying themselves with other tasks (Robinson, 1879).

The History, Effects and Trends of Subsidized Housing

Unfortunately for most communities, political, economic, and social changes have dramatically impacted the Métis way of life, causing rippling effects from one generation to another. For others, however, the housing situation has evolved from a state of dispossession to one of adaptation and resiliency. Individuals once pushed to the fringes of a newly emerging society could safeguard aspects of their culture. Overcrowding and substandard accommodations continue to be a reality for both rural and urban living Métis (Beatch, 1995). These are but some of the many difficulties presently encountered along with the growing shortage of affordable rental housing and increase in poverty (Rivard, 2000). Today, housing programs for both First Nation and Métis communities still exist throughout Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.

Subsidized housing programs for Métis communities in northern Saskatchewan were implemented as early as 1960 (Chislett & Milford & Bone, 1987). In lieu of the Métis providing their own living accommodations, designs and funding were procured by the Saskatchewan Housing Corporation and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada in order to build more affordable housing. Examples of these designs are showcased in the figures found in the next section of this paper. These homes had a number of different effects on Métis communities. Firstly, the design of the homes did not support the particular lifestyle shared amongst this culture. The segmented organization of space has had additional ramifications on the level of wear on the home and how they supported larger families. As a result, overcrowding became a large concern, both within the home and on the land (Rivard, 2000). This put a considerable amount of stain on the home which contributed to higher deterioration rates. Geographic isolation and climatic differences were also a concern when considering the home’s’ level of durability (Beatch, 1995). Moreover, high cost of material transportation to more remote communities and lack of familiarity with the types of materials used in their construction made it also increasingly difficult to provide adequate maintenance.

Since the 1960s, efforts made by government-funded agencies as well as architects in the Indigenous housing sector continue to provide Indigenous communities with houses designed with an overt Euro-centric mindset. Not equipped to sustain contemporary and traditional Indigenous domiciliary behaviors, these homes quite literally crumble under the pressure. This cannot only be viewed as a direct form of cultural discrimination but a trend which has since threatened Indigenous social sustainability. This indicates that architects and designers should familiarize themselves with the relevant socio-spatial behaviors found in Indigenous households, thus, providing not only better support and understanding when working with Indigenous communities but also in hopes of raising current standards throughout the entire architectural community.

Diagram 1-Recovered-Recovered

Figure 5. Architectural plans of a folk home (Left) and of a “Three Bedroom Low Cost House” (Right). The folk home was a single room dwelling that allowed for a flexible use of space. The second home was designed by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) in 1968. This standardized, compartmentalized plan impeded Métis culture and tradition by disallowing flexible space where cultural and traditional activities could occur within the home. (Drawings: Jason Surkan)

06 Plans.jpg

Figure 6. This standardized, compartmentalized plan impeded Métis culture and tradition by disallowing flexible space where cultural and traditional activities could occur within the home. (Drawings: Jason Surkan)



Figure 7. Isometric view of a folk home (Left) and of a “Three Bedroom Low Cost House” (Right). The folk home was constructed of locally sourced logs that were hand hewn and often dovetail notched. The building of these homes was a social event and often many members of a community would lend a helping hand to construct the home. The INAC home was prefabricated of manufactured materials and shipped into communities. Offsite prefabrication often reduces local labour used in the building process and does not allow knowledge around construction and maintenance of homes within the community. (Drawings: Jason Surkan)


Figure 8. Architectural elevations of a folk home (Left) and of a “Three Bedroom Low Cost House” (Right). The folk home featured a second story loft where families slept in a communal room, heated by a central hearth. The INAC home, features three smaller bedrooms, where personal seclusion was furthered. The main living space is far smaller than that of a folk home and inflexible in nature, which forced settler social practices on Métis families, furthering cultural assimilation. (Drawings: Jason Surkan)


Homes provided by INAC are emblematic of colonial paternalism, introducing designs which became problematic for families attempting to uphold the communalistic values previously expressed. This is not to say that privacy is less prevalent but instead manifested differently in Métis culture. For many Indigenous cultures as well as the Métis, the lines of privacy are often blurred, implied within a social context rather than in physical built form. Understanding the intricacies surrounding the theme of privacy and social organization of the Métis household much like any other society or culture is often difficult to observe. Therefore, firsthand accounts from Métis people throughout history as well as members of surviving communities are crucial in understanding this dynamic. When considering the dramatic impact, the interior design of INAC homes had on Métis social behaviors and cultural customs, it becomes increasingly evident how the design of the home itself attempted to break down cultural solidarity and egalitarianism through the imposition of physical privacy that was aligned with alienated ideals of liberalism, private space and property, and individual capital acquisition.

04 Contemporary Métis Household.jpg

Figure 9: Interior of a Contemporary Métis Home. (Photo: J Surkan)


[1] The Métis are an Indigenous cultural group originally formed in Canada during the fur trade of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries mostly from relations between male European settlers and Indigenous women. Over the centuries, this group began intermarrying with each other to form a unique culture with its own political, social, and cultural distinctions in various locations, most prominently the Red River Settlement in present day Manitoba. Various court cases have confirmed that the Métis are considered “Indians” as per the 1763 Royal Proclamation, the 1867 Constitution Act (British North America Act), and the revised 1982 Constitution Act.


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One response to “Métis Domestic Thresholds and the Politics of Imposed Privacy

  1. Pingback: CONVERSATIONS: ELMER GHOSTKEEPER | The Métis Architect...(?)·

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