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Houses, Schools, Hospitals: “Indian” Architecture and the Design of Genocide in Canada

Magdalena Miłosz

 

In her book Enduring Innocence, the American architect Keller Easterling writes about familiar “spatial products” such as resorts, ports, and other information enclaves deployed in difficult political situations around the world.[1] Typically anonymous and banal, these architectures are often merely by-products of global politics and neoliberal economic forces. In a similar vein, the Canadian government used the ordinary “spatial products” of houses, schools, hospitals, and other architectural types in the service of an official agenda to assimilate the country’s diverse Indigenous peoples.

Developed mostly in the first half of the twentieth century, this “Indian” architecture was mass produced in response to the ideological requirements of eradicating Indigenous cultures and languages. It was used to represent Euro-Canadian cultural norms and enabled the government to carry out assimilative practices, thereby reinforcing a perceived association between “civilization” and the reorganization of space. Unlike the diffuseness of contemporary global spatial products, however, “Indian” architecture depended entirely on its positioning in specific places close to or on reserves or, in the case of residential schools, strategically away from reserves so as to sever Indigenous children from their communities. Rather than emerging as by-products of their legal and political contexts, “Indian” architecture was distributed heavy-handedly in gestures of all-consuming power.

Governed by the 1876 Indian Act and its many subsequent amendments, Indigenous peoples in Canada were considered wards of the state whose every move was determined by the government. Writing in 1969 at a time of growing Indigenous rights activism, Cree leader Harold Cardinal protested the power of “faceless people in Ottawa” to decide all aspects of Indigenous life, including the prosaic matter of “what houses will be built on what reserves for what Indians and whether they may have inside or outside toilets.”[2] This seemingly hyperbolic statement in fact reflected a reality that Indigenous people had faced for decades, and continue to face in certain forms today.

In the past, Indian agents who inspected and wielded power over the inhabitants of reserves looked closely at their dwellings for clues that assimilative efforts were succeeding, as suggested in this 1903 report on the Moose Woods reserve (Whitecap Dakota First Nation) in Saskatchewan:

The houses had all wooden floors and good doors, and were well furnished, double iron bedsteads in nearly all of them, rocking and other chairs, tables, bureaus, etc. … I was much pleased with the neatness and cleanliness of their houses and surroundings, and the well dressed men, women and children. I noticed flowers in some of the windows.[3]

Rather than continuing to leave such “civilized” development to chance, the federal Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) developed an expansive bureaucratic apparatus of architectural production centralized in the capital of Ottawa. A little-known but prolific architect, Roland Guerney Orr, spent his entire career at the DIA, starting in 1907 as a draughtsman and working up to the position of Chief Architect prior to his death in 1937. In this time, he designed over ninety buildings.[4] Among his sizeable output was a significant number of repeatable stock designs for single-family houses. A one-storey cottage designed by Orr in 1921 for the Blackfoot reserve (Siksika Nation) in Alberta was likely part of a series with different configurations; this particular example had two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, and cellar in a partly excavated basement.

R.G. Orr, “Plan of cottage ‘A’ for Blackfoot I.R. [Indian Reserve] Alta., Plan No. 299A”, 1921, Library and Archives Canada, NMC82085.

R.G. Orr, “Plan of cottage ‘A’ for Blackfoot I.R. [Indian Reserve] Alta., Plan No. 299A”, 1921, Library and Archives Canada, NMC82085.

An interpreter’s house that Orr had designed in 1916 was more elaborate than the cottage, suggesting the unique status accorded its occupant. The designs of these houses did not fundamentally differ from the small-town homes of working-class Euro-Canadians, and that was entirely the point. The architecture Orr designed for the DIA was intended to speed the process of assimilation by creating simulacra of typical Euro-Canadian environments.

R.G. Orr, “Plan of House for Interpreter”, 1916, Library and Archives Canada.

R.G. Orr, “Plan of House for Interpreter”, 1916, Library and Archives Canada.

Schools for Indigenous children in Canada were initiated by Christian denominations throughout the mid- to late nineteenth century and funded by the federal government. They were of several types: day schools on reserves, boarding schools away from reserves, and large, centralized industrial schools, which aimed to fit young people for participation in the broader Canadian economy. After 1911, the industrial schools were phased out in favour of what came to be known as residential schools, which delivered a homogenous curriculum of basic academics, agricultural training, and manual labour.

In 1920, Duncan Campbell Scott, head of the DIA, introduced a bill to make schooling mandatory for Indigenous children, vowing to continue assimilative efforts “until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.”[5] Although residential schooling was not made compulsory, the dearth of day school options meant that in practice, a significant number of children would continue to be separated from their parents as a result. The majority, however, were sent to schools on reserves, like the one at Six Nations in southern Ontario, for which Roland Guerney Orr designed an addition in 1925. This project provides insight into the spatial differences between day and residential schools by proposing a small-scale inversion of the typical residential school space. Instead of Indigenous children being separated from their community to live with white teachers, the teachers came to live at the school, and in many cases may have been from the community themselves. Despite these circumstances, day schools operated with similar assimilative measures, such as prohibitions against Indigenous languages, as the residential schools.

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R.G. Orr, “Plan of Addition to No. 11 School, Six Nations Reserve, Brantford, Ont.”, 1925, Library and Archives Canada.

 

The federal government set about a program of replacing many of the dilapidated residential schools during the 1920s and 1930s, using some of the later projects to stimulate the depressed economy. Orr designed these large buildings in his trademark Collegiate Gothic, with pitched roofs and spires reaching towards the sky, or Gothic-tinged Classical Moderne, with flat roofs and stylized pediments, echoing the grandiose “Public Works Administration” Moderne style emerging in the United States at this time.

 R.G. Orr, “Plan of Addition to No. 11 School, Six Nations Reserve, Brantford, Ont.”, 1925, Library and Archives Canada.

R.G. Orr, “Plans of Indian Residential School [Birtle, Manitoba]”, 1930, Library and Archives Canada.

R.G. Orr, Elevations and section of Brandon Indian Residential School, Manitoba, 1929, Library and Archives Canada.

R.G. Orr, Elevations and section of Brandon Indian Residential School, Manitoba, 1929, Library and Archives Canada.

Despite some external differences, the residential schools Orr designed were very similar to one another, sometimes nearly indistinguishable, while “the internal organization of the school building was a silent reminder of racial barriers as well as gender differences.”[6] Because the children lived at the schools, the buildings had to incorporate gender-segregated dormitories, as well as classrooms and other gender-specific spaces such as sewing rooms. Separate staff facilities within the main school building were often notably more comfortable and of better quality than those provided to the children.

Canadian Department of the Interior, “Indian Residential School, Edmonton, Alta.”, n.d., constructed 1923, Library and Archives Canada, PA-040761.

Canadian Department of the Interior, “Indian Residential School, Edmonton, Alta.”, n.d., constructed 1923, Library and Archives Canada, PA-040761.

“Shingwauk Indian Residential School (Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.)”, ca. 1940, Engracia De Jesus Matias Archives and Special Collections, Algoma University, 2010-007-001.

“Shingwauk Indian Residential School (Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.)”, ca. 1940, Engracia De Jesus Matias Archives and Special Collections, Algoma University, 2010-007-001.

It was not uncommon for Indian Affairs to go to the extent of designing farm buildings, such as barns, at residential institutions. These were essential to the operation of many schools, which ran on a “half-day system” wherein students were in the classroom for half the day and performed various types of manual labour in the second half.

R.G. Orr, “Plan of Cow Barn at Birtle Residential School, Manitoba”, 1930, Library and Archives Canada.

R.G. Orr, “Plan of Cow Barn at Birtle Residential School, Manitoba”, 1930, Library and Archives Canada.

Hospitals also appeared on the grounds of residential schools or on reserves, many of them opened at the turn of the century to treat patients with tuberculosis. They were racially segregated partly because of the reality of a divided population, and partly due to racist attitudes that “Indian TB” was a threat to the non-Indigenous population. Initially set up in tents, they were often later converted to permanent structures. The Blood Indian Hospital in Cardston, Alberta, was designed by Roland Guerney Orr and built in 1928 at the entrance to the reserve. This building still exists and was recognized in 1991 as a Federal Heritage Building.[7] The stylized pediment on top of the hospital’s front elevation was echoed in some of Orr’s residential school designs, such as the Birtle Residential School, lending a sense of eerie familiarity to various structures in disparate places.

Blood Indian Hospital, Santé Canada / Health Canada, 1990

Blood Indian Hospital, Santé Canada / Health Canada, 1990

Orr’s body of work represents a period when the Canadian government concerned itself to an extreme degree with the built environments occupied by Indigenous people. This concern was itself the result of a paternalistic and unequal relationship that continues to be negotiated today. Although many of the structures Orr designed are gone, some remain, and the impacts of the institutions they housed continue to reverberate in Indigenous communities. Some have dealt with the buildings by erasing them from the landscape, in this way encouraging healing from generations of colonial abuse. Others have put much effort into transforming them so as to make them useful for the present. Some remain in the hands of non-Indigenous groups, complicating an ongoing process of reconciliation. A greater understanding of the origins of these “spatial products” can hopefully be productive for their ongoing transformation, drawing attention to the commemorative role they can play in remembering a difficult history of settler colonialism.

 

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[1] Keller Easterling, Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and its Political Masquerades (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005), 1.

[2] Harold Cardinal, The Unjust Society (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1999), 7-8.

[3] Library and Archives Canada, Indian Affairs Annual Reports, 1864-1990, 1903, 204-205, http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/aboriginal-heritage/first-nations/indian-affairs-annual-reports/Pages/introduction.aspx.

[4] Robert G. Hill, Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada, 1800-1950, s.v. “Orr, Roland Guerney,” http://www.dictionaryofarchitectsincanada.org/architects/view/123, [accessed June 19, 2014].

[5] Library and Archives Canada, RG 10, “Indian Act – Amendments”, volume 6810, file 470-2-3, part 7, 1920, pages 55 (L-3) and 63 (N-3), microfilm reel C-8533.

[6] J.R. Miller, Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 193-4.

[7] “Blood Indian Hospital,” Canada’s Historic Places, http://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=9737, [accessed June 16, 2014].

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Magdalena Miłosz – Magdalena is a Master of Architecture candidate at the University of Waterloo in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada. She is completing a research thesis on the design politics and collective memory of Indian residential schools, with a focus on specific locations in Ontario and Manitoba. Her research interests include the history of design, archives, landscapes, and politics, among others. She also writes fiction and poetry.

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© Magdalena Miłosz 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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