Architects say former U.S. embassy 'not culturally appropriate' space for new indigenous centre
The federal government has announced plans to convert the former U.S. embassy across from Parliament Hill into a space dedicated to Canada’s indigenous people.
But indigenous architects are calling the building at 100 Wellington St. in Ottawa a “hand-me-down” and say it is “not a culturally appropriate space” for an indigenous centre.
Speaking to a crowd of indigenous leaders and government officials outside the building on National Aboriginal Day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he hopes the converted space will serve as a “permanent reminder that indigenous people are at the very heart of this great land.”
“This is your space,” he said Wednesday. “We want you to decide how best to use it in order to serve your communities.”
But in a statement issued a day before the announcement, the Indigenous Task Force of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) said it’s another example of indigenous communities being “forced into leftover spaces that fail to connect in any meaningful way to their cultures.
“Indigenous people always get the hand-me-downs, the buildings, and land that settlers no longer have a use for,” said the RAIC task force, comprised of about 30 mostly indigenous architects, architectural students, interns and academics.
The former U.S. embassy is prime real estate in Ottawa, located directly across the street from Parliament Hill. It was built in the 1930s, acquired from the U.S. government in 1997, and has remained vacant since 1998.
Trudeau said his government wanted a space dedicated to indigenous people to be in the centre of the country’s political institutions, so that millions of tourists and Canadians who visit the nation’s capital can be reminded of indigenous people’s key role in Canadian society.
“No relationship is more important to this government than that with the indigenous peoples,” Trudeau said.
In Tuesday’s statement, the RAIC indigenous task force chair, architect Patrick Stewart of the Nisga’a Nation, said there wasn’t enough consultation before the government made the decision about the building.
The statement said the building’s classic revival architecture style is most identified with colonization, “echoing structures of European authority.”
The task force said the government should consult with indigenous architects, elders and community members on how to reconfigure and repurpose the building and the land that surrounds it.
“Perhaps the place to start would be for the federal government to provide capital dollars for the design and construction of a meaningful culturally appropriate structure based upon Indigenous knowledge through the use of Indigenous architects,” Stewart said in the statement.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said he welcomes the government’s decision to make 100 Wellington St. a space for indigenous people.
“This is prime real estate….right across from the House of Commons,” he told CTV’s Power Play on Wednesday.
“So the way I look at it is, those 338 members of Parliament that go into that big building are going to come out every day and look across the road, and (it’s) going to be on their mind, their heart and in their spirit that that’s the Indigenous Peoples’ house.”
Bellegarde said the building will remind parliamentarians that “they’ve got to consider indigenous people in every decision they make.”
“You’re not going to say no to this opportunity because it’s got so much potential,” he added.
Trudeau also announced Wednesday that Langevin Block, the building that houses the Prime Minister’s Office, will be renamed.
The building was named after Hector-Louis Langevin, a politician and father of Confederation who had expressed strong support for establishing what would become the government-run residential school program. Indigenous leaders had been calling for the Langevin name to be removed from the building, which will now be simply referred to as Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council.
National Aboriginal Day will also be renamed National Indigenous Peoples Day, Trudeau said.
With files from The Canadian Press