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Rendering of Indigenous Commons at Centennial College A-Block

Throughout Canada’s history, colonialism and education remained inexorably linked. From the genocidal residential school system to ongoing disinvestment in Indigenous communities and institutions — and the marginalization of Indigenous epistemologies — settler ideology still shapes learning across the country. While colleges and universities have served as bastions of colonial thought, their campus buildings reinforced the same principles through architecture and urban design. That’s beginning to change.

As the push for Truth and Reconciliation reverberates (albeit haltingly) across the country, Indigenous academics and architects are reinventing both the design curriculum and the campus. At OCAD U, for example, five Indigenous practitioners — Herman Pi’ikea Clark, Matthew Hickey, Julia Rose Sutherland, Jason Lujan and Sadie Red Wing — joined the Faculty of Design in 2021 and 2022, while Omeasoo Wahpasiw and Jake Chakasim also became part of Carleton’s Azrieli School of Architecture last year. And this summer, Métis architect and academic David T. Fortin hosted The Design Lodge symposium, an Indigenous round-table that culminated in the publication of an incisive essay challenging the colonial role of the studio as the fulcrum of design pedagogy.

The built environment is beginning to change too. A growing emphasis on Indigenous knowledge and decolonized spaces is transforming the architecture of post-secondary education. Below, we look at how five Tkaronto/Toronto-area institutions are building Indigeneity on campus.

The University of Toronto

Founded in 1827, the University of Toronto (U of T) remains one of the country’s most prestigious universities — with a Neoclassical, Romanesque and Gothic downtown campus to boot. In 2020, the school published a document outlining the Calls to Action drawn from the university’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Alongside recommendations regarding hiring and curricula, the report calls for increased representation of Indigenous art and languages across the school’s three campuses, as well as design standards that take smudging ceremonies into account for all new construction and renovation projects.

Rendering of Indigenous House at University of Toronto Scarborough campus, showing the west approach

The university’s Scarborough campus, meanwhile, has begun construction on the Indigenous House. Designed by Indigenous-owned firm Formline Architecture in collaboration with LGA Architectural Partners, this 1,000-square-metre complex will include social spaces for Indigenous staff, students and community members, as well as research areas.

Interior rendering of Indigenous House at UTSC campus, showing the central gathering place, framed by a wood dome ceiling

The design features a curved glulam diagrid, the laminated timber structure evoking the domed Wigwam dwellings once common across much of Turtle Island. According to Formline principal Alfred Waugh, the complex represents an architectural homage to local Indigenous cultures. “The building will rise out of the earth intimately integrated with the landscape,” says Waugh, a member of the Fond du Lac Denesuline Nation of Saskatchewan.

For the university, Indigenous House also represents a new cultural and architectural paradigm. “It’s important to view this building as being alive – it’s not just a physical structure with a roof, walls and rooms,” notes Kelly Crawford, the assistant director of Indigenous initiatives at U of T Scarborough. “It’s alive in the sense that it embodies Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing and doing. We are respectful of honouring this not only during its creation, but in the programs and activities that will take place there.”

Centennial College

Set to be completed in 2023, Centennial College’s A-Block Expansion is poised to become an instant community hub. Located at the nucleus of the school’s Progress Campus, the mixed-use 14,000-square-metre building is conceived as a physical embodiment of the school’s commitment to Truth and Reconciliation.

Exterior rendering of Centennial College A-Block expansion, showing the fish scale pattern across the facade.

Designed by DIALOG and Indigenous-owned firm Smoke Architecture, the mass timber, zero-carbon complex is predicated on the notion of “Two-Eyed Seeing,” a Mi’kmaq philosophy of simultaneously observing the world through Indigenous and Western modes. Architecturally, the concept translates into a synthesis of placed-based narrative (rooted in sensitivity to local plant and animal life and the changing seasons) with the aspirations of high-tech, low-carbon design.

It’s a philosophy that also guides the building’s program — which architect Eladia Smoke describes as a “teaching lodge.” Classrooms and labs that support Indigenous teaching and ways of knowing are combined with communal spaces grounded in Anishinaabe culture.

Rendering of Wisdom Hall at Centennial College campus, showing Indigenous art on the paddle-shaped wood ceiling joists
Wisdom Hall.

In the Wisdom Hall, a double-height space that runs through the heart of the building, the ceiling joists evoke the paddles of an Ojibwe canoe and are adorned with Indigenous artwork. The Indigenous Commons, meanwhile, is designed according to the principles of an Anishinaabe roundhouse (nimii-idiwigamig) and sweat lodges; it offers a space for drum, dance and sharing circles, smudging and more. As Smoke puts it, “it’s important that this building has a heart.”

Toronto Metropolitan University

In 2021, Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) finally dropped Egerton Ryerson, a key contributor to the establishment of residential schools in the 19th century. By bearing his name, the school had been tacitly celebrating Ryerson’s genocidal legacy. Last August, however, the university adopted the recommendations of the Standing Strong (Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win) Task Force to transform the institution for the future. First priority? Change the name.

A photo of The Ring sculpture, seen from an angle on a September afternoon.
PHOTO: Jennifer Hyc

Over the past year, its traces have gradually been removed, with the new TMU moniker revealed this year. Shortly thereafter, the school also welcomed an Indigenous sculpture onto the heart of the campus.

Designed by Matthew Hickey and Jacqueline Daniel of Two Row Architect (a firm headquartered on the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nations Reserve) in collaboration with the school’s Indigenous stakeholders, the Corten steel sculpture — affectionately known as “The Ring” — honours the Dish With One Spoon Territory on which the campus sits.

A close-up of the ring, showing the perforations depicting animals.
PHOTO: Jennifer Hyc

A physical embodiment of the Anishinaabe Seven Grandparent Teachings, The Ring is perforated with a series of animal pictographs that represent each of the fundamental lessons: Love, Respect, Bravery, Truth, Honesty, Humility and Wisdom.

Seneca College
Odeyto’s sinuous exterior. PHOTO: Tom Arban

When the Odeyto Indigenous Centre opened in 2018, the hundreds of Indigenous students enrolled at Seneca’s Newham campus finally had a dedicated place to come together. As well as providing a venue for a wide variety of social and cultural Indigenous events, Odeyto (which means “The Good Journey” in Anishinaabe) is a daily hub for studying, counselling and tutoring. Designed by Gow Hastings and Two Row Architect, the curved wooden form is a break from the rectilinear concrete buildings that comprise the rest of the campus.

Inside Odeyto. PHOTO: Tom Arban

A year later, Seneca unveiled the Centre for Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship (CITE). Spanning over 25,000 square metres, the interior of the Newham Campus complex (designed by Perkins&Will with Bruce Mau) is anchored by a stunning terrazzo medallion inset into the floor. Created by Indigenous artist Joseph Sagaj, the “Circle of Indigenous Knowledge” is a celebration of both Indigeneity and inclusion.

“The way the elders put it,” says Sagaj, “is that the footprints of the clans of the animals and birds incorporated in the medallion serve as a metaphor to invite people to walk with us in the circle of life, the circle of unity.”

A view of the Circle of Indigenous Knowledge artwork, seen from above at head height
The Circle of Indigenous Knowledge at Seneca CITE. PHOTO: Doublespace

Since then, the college has continued to expand its First Peoples @ Seneca Program. This year, Mark Solomon, a member of the Henvey Inlet First Nation, was appointed Senior Advisor to the President on Reconciliation and Inclusion, overseeing a newly created department dedicated to advancing equity at Seneca.

York University

Last year, York University launched the Centre for Indigenous Knowledges and Languages (CIKL), facilitating the production and dissemination of knowledge that re-centres Indigenous languages, practices and ways of being.

Rendering of York Markham Campus building, showing the 10-storey building's slightly curved form

And next year, the university is slated to unveil its new Markham Campus, a major construction project undertaken in partnership with Seneca College.

Rendering of York Markham Campus building, showing the 10-storey building's slightly curved form

Designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects, the 10-storey complex incorporates key principles from York’s Indigenous Framework, starting with a robust community engagement process that guided the design: The complex will include an outdoor learning circle as well a multi-faith prayer space, while the material language will emphasize natural wood and stone, and the form will eschew sharp rectilinear edges in favour of a subtle, organic presence.

Lead Image: Indigenous Commons at Centennial College A-Block Expansion.

Indigenous Campus: Truth and Reconciliation in the Built Environment

A look at how five post-secondary institutions across the Tkaronto/Toronto area are bringing Indigenous design — and education — to the forefront.

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