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Danica Mitrić: Contextualising colonialism

Danica Mitrić

Canada’s Indian Residential School buildings are the legacy of a painful past. Architects can learn from debates over their future says Danica Mitrić, winner of our 2022 Future Architects writing competition

Volunteers prepare for a June 2021 press conference and prayer vigil at the former Muscowequan Indian Residential School.
Volunteers prepare for a June 2021 press conference and prayer vigil at the former Muscowequan Indian Residential School. Credit: The Canadian Press/Kayle Neis/Alamy

As we grapple with the lasting effects of colonialism, many of us choose to focus on social issues such as racism or slavery. For others though, there are prominent physical reminders of the pain which has been inflicted upon their communities. One example is the system of Indian residential schools (IRS) which operated in Canada for more than a century until the last closed in 1997.

The primary purpose of the IRS system was to assimilate indigenous children into British-Canadian culture. Children were taken away from their homes as young as five years old, given ‘western’ clothes and names, only allowed to speak English or French, and only practice the religion of the order that ran the schools on behalf of the government, not their own spiritual practices.

Many IRS buildings were designed without reference to either the local context or the culture of those who would be attending. Take Muskowekwan IRS (Musk-o-we-gan) as an example – a dark building both literally and figuratively. It was built in a Collegiate Gothic style, with an imposing facade overlooking a long straight pathway adorned by straight rows of trees planted by the students. The chapel at the back of the building is of particular abhorrence to many people who were forced to attend prayers there daily for hours at a time.

In order to simplify construction, most IRS buildings were built from the same few designs provided by the British/Canadian governments. Muskowekwan IRS’s architectural siblings exist across the country and were based on designs by Rolland Guerney Orr, chief architect of the Department of Indian Affairs. Altogether, Orr designed 35 schools during his 15 year inter-war tenure, all in the same style.

It’s now widely known that physical, mental and sexual abuse was rife in IRS schools, instigated by priests and nuns, other staff or older students. That led to many suicides, runaways, and deaths, and children were buried behind the schools without informing their families. At Muskowekwan IRS many children were cremated in the boiler room.

Incomplete records contribute to uncertainty about how many children died under the IRS System. Although various school lands have been surveyed in recent years using ground-penetrating radar, the tragedies which occurred on these sites finally became international news in the summer of 2021, when 215 child graves were discovered next to the Kamloops IRS in British Columbia. Later that summer, 35 graves were confirmed to have been found next to Muskowekwan, with more to uncover. At the time of writing, 2352 unmarked graves have been found on the 15 sites so far surveyed, of more than 130 IRS sites across Canada.

As we learn about the negative history of these sites of trauma, questions are raised about how we respond as a populous and as architects. Do we preserve, contextualise or tear down these buildings? Similar questions arose in the summers of 2020 and 2021 around the world, as Black Lives Matter protests and questions on colonial influences simmered to the surface. Indigenous students and staff at Ryerson University in Toronto started the push for the name of their school to be changed as its namesake, 19th century educator Egerton Ryerson, is recognised as a key influence in the design of the IRS system. His statue in Toronto was torn down by protestors, along with many that memorialised people who were integral to colonialism. Others had plaques added to them to explain and contextualise their roles in the history of colonialism instead.

Egerton Ryerson’s statue in Toronto was torn down by protestors

The question of what to do with the  IRS buildings was brought up after the last schools closed. With the encouragement of government incentives, many communities decided that it would be best to demolish them. But the people of Muskowekwan First Nation, among others, felt that this would be just another opportunity for the government to sweep the history and reality of what happened under the rug, and so voted to keep the building standing on their reserve. Muskowekwan IRS currently sits unused and deteriorating while the community decides how to move forward.

A limited number of IRS buildings have been adaptively reused, some as education or community centres, such as the Old Sun Boarding School in Alberta which now houses the Blackfoot Nation’s Old Sun Community College. Another building, Kootenay (Koo-tuh-nay) IRS, was transformed into the St Eugene Golf Resort and Casino, a ‘powerful economic engine’ for the Kootenay First Nation. It also houses the Ktunaxa (K-tu-na-ha) Interpretive Centre, providing necessary context to the site.

What has been evidenced these past few years is that architecture plays an important role in both acknowledging and suppressing identity. IRS buildings were designed to aid in the effort to assimilate Indigenous youth. However, in a defiant and continuing effort to reclaim ownership of their past and future, many Indigenous peoples of Canada have decided to maintain these buildings and sites. Some decide to take it a step further and empower themselves and future generations through the adaptive reuse of that same architecture with their own values in mind.

There, the individuals and communities affected by colonialism have taken the lead in deciding the buildings’ fate. The debates around such structures and diverse solutions indicate the complexity of the issue. As architects it is our responsibility not only to be conscious of the cultural and historical significance of the sites we work on, but to understand their impact on society as a whole. Only if we are educated by those directly affected by the impact of colonialism on society can we bring a meaningful consideration of these issues into the design process, and create a brighter future. 

Danica Mitrić is an MArch student at Nottingham Trent University

This competition was run in collaboration with RIBA Future Architects Network 

See details of all commended and shortlisted entries to the 2022 RIBAJ/Future Architects writing competition