One key to successful self-governance at the Kitigan Zibi First Nation near Maniwaki, Quebec, is developing an economic engine inside the reserve itself. In the face of numerous challenges—dealing with radon gas, financial lending restrictions—a Carleton architecture student is creating a master plan for the area with the help of digital modelling
By Paul Gessell
Quebec’s Route 105 begins on the outskirts of the city of Gatineau and heads north along the Gatineau River. After about 130 kilometres of pine forests, pastures and poutine stands, you encounter a road called Makwa Mikan. A gas station and a few small businesses cluster at this junction. Turn left. A few hundred metres west sits a round, domed building decorated with a frieze of stick figures like those found in ancient petroglyphs. This is the Cultural Centre of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation and the very heart and soul of this Algonquin community.
The Cultural Centre was designed by Douglas Cardinal, Canada’s greatest Aboriginal architect, whose most famous building is the supple, curved Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau. The shape of the Cultural Centre is an enlarged version of the ancient round, domed dwellings built by the Algonquin people who occupied vast territories in Quebec and Ontario centuries before Samuel de Champlain came exploring. To this day, much of the Algonquin land has never been ceded. A map at the Kitigan Zibi Kikinamadinan School reminds the 211 students daily that they have inherited a territory stretching from Ottawa toward James Bay and far exceeding the roughly 184 square kilometres within the boundaries of the heavily forested reserve.
Across from the Cultural Centre is a flat, open field. At least, that’s what most people see. Steph Bolduc, a Carleton University architecture student from Timmins, Ont., sees something else—a recreation centre containing a hockey arena, a soccer field on a flat part of the roof and, on one side, a glassed-in area shaped like a giant overturned canoe. It’s meant to house retail shops, a market for local produce and crafts, artists’ studios, offices and other tenants whose rent would help pay for maintenance of the sports facilities.
Bolduc is not alone in envisaging a recreation centre here, and his project—for his master’s degree in architecture—is an offshoot of a partnership between Carleton and the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation. The land is “community-owned,” notes Chief Gilbert Whiteduck and ideal for the very type of building Bolduc is designing. Whiteduck is watching Bolduc’s work with great interest.
So far, the building exists only in Bolduc’s computer at Carleton’s Immersive Media Studio (CIMS) laboratory on the fourth floor of the Visualization and Simulation Building. The same goes for the houses Bolduc has designed for KZ, as the reserve is called by most of its 1,500 inhabitants. In an effort to produce something less expensive than conventional houses, Bolduc has designed a wooden house shaped like an elongated teepee, with no basement and one long, slanted wall with solar panels.
The designs for the recreation centre, houses and other architectural features are part of Bolduc’s thesis, which is intended to lay out ways to improve life at KZ. It grew out of the collaboration between KZ and Carleton’s school of architecture and urbanism to create a 3-D digital model, a living “map” you could say, of large sections of the reserve. The map will show the placement of major buildings around the cultural centre as well as in a densely developed area near the school and police station on the street called Kikinamage Mikan. It will take you inside those buildings and also on roads past forests and lakes and no-construction zones where endangered turtles live. More outlying areas of KZ will be included, but with less detail.
The 3-D map will be like a video game with no bad guys to obliterate and is under the supervision of CIMS director Stephen Fai. Once done, it will help KZ decide what areas are suitable for extended water and sewer lines for new houses, retail outlets and potential industrial projects related to timber, maple syrup production and other economic efforts.
Marcel Brascoupé has been one of Carleton’s main collaborators at KZ. He works in community services for the reserve and supports the project enthusiastically. “We’re trying to do long-term community planning, and we’re developing a master plan for development,” Brascoupé says. “For us, what this actual project would enable us to do is to try and incorporate our ideals into something concrete that we could actually see.”
Thus, if the KZ band council wanted to erect a recreation centre, whether Bolduc’s design or someone else’s, its design could be incorporated into the 3-D map so that everyone in the community could peer at a computer screen, as if looking into the future, and see how it would or would not fit into a particular neighbourhood. Would it crowd out other buildings? Would its parking lot elbow out an endangered species? Would the proposed site be on lots serviced by existing water and sewer lines or on unserviced lots involving costly extensions?
“Not everybody can read a plan [on paper], see a plan and understand what’s on the plan,” Brascoupé says. “But seeing it in a presentation in 3-D? That goes a long way.” The map, in essence, will become a tool for democracy and, adds Whiteduck, a project other First Nations communities might emulate to bring order to what, in the past, has often been a hodgepodge of development. “The sky is the limit as to where our creativity can take us,” he says.
The story of this project begins in 1939 with shoemakers from Czechoslovakia. A young swashbuckling entrepreneur, Thomas Bata, emigrated to Canada shortly before the Second World War and started manufacturing shoes. Bata was accompanied by 100 Czech families who founded Batawa, a real company town, near Trenton.
The town and its Bata shoe factory thrived until the 1990s, when offshore competition strangled it into closing in 1999. The town faced an uncertain future until a decade later, when Sonja Bata, Thomas’s widow, announced a plan to breathe new life into Batawa with the help of Carleton University.
“Mrs. Bata has a dream,” Marco Frascari, director of the school of architecture, told The Ottawa Citizen in 2009. “She wants to make Batawa a showcase for design, life, culture and sustainability. The university is going to work on the whole package.”
As part of that package, Carleton produced laser scans of the major buildings in Batawa and melded that data with topography and roads to produce a virtual 3-D map to help developers decide how to rejuvenate an entire village. The abandoned shoe factory was declared suitable to be repurposed as condominiums. The community at large is being geared toward people who can work mostly from home and commute, only when necessary, 90 minutes each way to Toronto.
Carleton’s Katherine Graham, currently senior adviser to Carleton’s president and provost, served as the Batawa project coordinator, bringing her experience in public policy and local governance combined with a keen interest in Aboriginal issues. Two years ago she was part of a meeting of the university’s Task Force on Aboriginal Affairs, which is jointly chaired by Provost Peter Ricketts and Anita Tenasco, KZ’s director of education. Whiteduck was also invited.
“During the course of the day, it emerged Chief Whiteduck was interested in getting a better sense, having a better record, of the KZ territory and all its facilities,” Graham recalls. “I was very familiar with the work of Stephen Fai at Batawa and thought this would be a good match and played matchmaker.”
Whiteduck and Fai hit it off and arranged funding of the project through Mitacs, a federal-provincial innovation agency that had also supported the Batawa project. Mitacs put up half of the $90,000 for the KZ project, with the federal Department of Indian Affairs supplying the other half.
Fai and some architecture students visited KZ last summer armed with a laser scanner that looks like an old-fashioned movie projector but, at about $100,000, is far more costly and sophisticated. It sits on a yellow tripod similar to what a surveyor uses and shoots red laser beams 5,000 times a second in a 360-degree arc to record a 3-D image of buildings, roads and natural features. Simultaneously it’s taking photographs in the same arc. These scans and photos, when combined with data obtained in more conventional ways, can produce 3-D images that take you around and inside a building, showing the structure layer by layer and even how the building looked at various stages over the years—you could say 4-D images, the fourth dimension being time itself.
The KZ project is more difficult than Batawa or Parliament Hill because of the huge land mass involved, about 18,000 hectares of reserve compared with only 600 hectares at Batawa. The technology isn’t yet up to handling such a huge area, so new software is being developed that will allow data from different sources to be combined to create seamless visuals. Fai hopes to have all the bugs worked out by the fall, following another summer of scanning key buildings such as the daycare and band council offices. But even when that is done, there will be another challenge: training band council staff to maintain and update the 3-D map.
Last October, Fai and Bolduc visited Kitigan Zibi for a show and tell for high school students. The goal was more than just a friendly information session about a project in the community. It was an attempt to get students thinking about suggestions that might improve KZ (a library and a restaurant, please, some said later) and to get some thinking about architecture as a career.
“The main thing you need to become an architect is imagination,” Fai told the students. It is unclear whether many saw themselves as future architects. Teachers said students in their mid-teens have difficulty imagining themselves in any career.
“It’s hard for them to see themselves being anywhere else but here right now,” says principal Judy Côté, who became an enthusiastic supporter of the mapping project after Brascoupé briefed her on it. “It’s fascinating,” says Côté. She is originally from KZ but left as a young woman to become a teacher and “a wandering spirit.” Sixteen years later, she returned to KZ. “Now, this is where I want to be.”
Leaving a small community for the big city to attend university or other post-secondary institution can be intimidating for any teenager. KZ’s school follows the Quebec curriculum, which means students get a high school diploma after Grade 11. Many are only 16, not yet ready to leave the nest or to make important career decisions.
Things are even trickier for First Nations students, who must leave not only a close-knit extended family but all the touchstones of their Aboriginal culture, their very identity. Such worries were certainly expressed during interviews with a half-dozen KZ high school students.
“I’m afraid,” says Sierra Odjick, who would like to go on to some form of post-secondary education to become a journalist or broadcaster. “It’s just scary to think about it. But,” she adds after a pause, “I’ll be fine when I’m there.”
Another student, Curtis Commanda, seems a little surer of himself. He is interested in architecture, although he is not yet a convert. His hobby is building scale models of performance stages used by such performers as Shania Twain and Lady Antebellum—as a singer and guitar player, his main goal is a career in music. Hearing that, Fai chuckled. He, too, once longed to be a rock star but settled instead for architecture.
These students were interviewed last winter when the national news was dominated by the Idle No More Aboriginal movement. The school had a giant banner saying We Support Idle No More, and students had been discussing the movement in their native studies classes. They showed their support by organizing round dances and flash mobs in nearby Maniwaki and posting a round dance video to YouTube.
In his office at the band council office, Brascoupé says the students’ support was no surprise. “The youth that are up and coming and looking at their future are saying, ‘What’s in it for us down the road?’ You start instilling that thought in them and say, ‘Where do you see yourself in the next 15 to 20 years? What do you think is going to be happening in First Nation communities?’ It’s something that’s become personal for them.”
And so is the KZ-Carleton virtual plan. Students know there are few jobs in their home community, and as anglophones, they face limited opportunities off-reserve in nearby Maniwaki and other neighbouring towns. The band council employs about 100 people, and some KZ residents have jobs, often seasonal, in construction and forestry. But there’s a brain drain to Ottawa, Montreal and elsewhere and a flow of money from KZ to off-reserve stores and services.
The band council administers about $20 million annually, and only about $1 million of that is spent on the reserve, Brascoupé says. “The rest is going to the town of Maniwaki, and we’re creating jobs for the people in Maniwaki. If we’re buying supplies there, our money is creating jobs in that business. It’s unfortunate. We’d like to see more opportunities to spend the money in the community here.”
So the 3-D map being prepared by Fai and his students could become an economic tool to identify suitable areas for a strip mall or other retail services where KZ residents could shop, keeping money circulating on the reserve and providing jobs for high school graduates who want to remain in the community.
Simultaneously, the band council is trying to encourage a sense of entrepreneurship among the KZ residents. Brascoupé himself works part-time for the band council and part-time operating Solutions Radon MB, a company to help homeowners combat a common problem throughout west Quebec—naturally occurring radioactive radon gas seeping into houses and wells.
But the Carleton map cannot remove a built-in barrier to the entrepreneurial spirit within KZ. “The big thing,” says Brascoupé, “always comes down to the question of the land. When a person invests money into the community here in the form of a business, they’ll never own the land. They can never say, ‘Tomorrow morning, I’m putting up my business for sale.’ They can’t sell it to anybody other than someone who is First Nations.”
And even the most talented entrepreneur cannot succeed without money to start a business. Reserve residents have difficulty getting bank loans because banks cannot seize property if the money is not repaid.
This means local entrepreneurs or the band council itself seem best placed to build stores or create jobs in reserve-based industries.
Steph Bolduc, the student designing a recreation centre, knows how architecture is integrated with economic life. He is looking into whether an existing KZ maple syrup operation can be expanded. It may or may not pan out. Maybe timber is the solution. Or tourism. Whatever the decision, Fai clearly believes the best solutions to the community’s problems will come from the community itself.
The 3-D map that Fai and his team are creating will be a very high-tech tool but, in the end, just a tool. It is up to the residents of Kitigan Zibi to decide how to use it.