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Housing in First Nations communities across Northern Ontario, and throughout Canada, is a site of physical manifestation of colonial, assimilative policies. Housing in this context is a site of struggle, existing at the intersections of physical and mental health, culture, community, sustainability and economic success. Homes, the spaces between them, the processes that develop them, the materials that are used in building them and the skills necessary to construct and maintain them are a critical part of forming a community; unfortunately, in so many First Nations reserve communities, each step of this process has been dictated to communities. Knowledge, materials and values have been exported from Southern centres of power- under the guise of creating safer, healthier housing a suburban form has been transplanted onto boreal forest. Clearcutting and grading land, disrupting lifestyles and economies, transforming family structures, houses were tools to assimilate- using reserves thought of as temporary transitional spaces- an introduction to the then idealized suburban lifestyle of Southern Canada.
Where communities were given a choice, it was limited to small number of Indian House Types. Standard designs were complimented by standard furniture, creating national uniformity; kitchens received 6 Straight Chairs for Canadian Indian Homes to sit beneath an Expandable Dining Table for Canadian Indian Homes, while living rooms received a Sofa Bed for Canadian Indian Homes. Family space was the domain of the federal government; institutionalized to serve broader policy objectives.
Recent policy has increasingly directed power and jurisdiction to the community level. Critiques of this devolution of power note that the transfer was made without establishing capacity building programs, or shifting control of funding. Generations of strictly institutionalized housing regimes cannot be undone through the passing of legislation, legacies of control and power remain in the system. Rather than looking to re-establish housing as a seat of culture in First Nations communities, shifting jurisdiction has looked to release a burden of responsibility from federal policy makers.
Through long-term partnership, +City lab, Ryerson University and Nibinamik, and Eabametoong First Nations are using Visioning Our Future Dwelling Together to reimagine the existing housing process. Engaging community members in discussions- through surveys, sharing sessions, workshops and mixed media development- visions of alternative community structures at the scale of both community and individual home are being created. Relationship are guided by the principles of listening, learning and sharing, recognizing that each individual- youth, Elder, mother, father- has important knowledge to share in shaping the future of their community. Process becomes central to design, not as an assimilative tool, or form of control but instead in ensuring that built form is representative of local values and goals.
Housing processes from governance structures through design become an entry point into a reimagining of healthier communities. Commitment to long-term partnership, and the development of trusting relationships allows for a lexicon of design to develop within communities, decolonizing processes, and once again situating culture and wellness at the centre of housing.