For many First Nations peoples, a safe and affordable home has been strategically kept out of reach — they were not allowed off the reserve for a time period, not allowed to own a house on the reserve, and unable to build equity as generations of non-Indigenous people have done — and Architect David Fortin says a project like the Silver Sage Housing Corporation Horse Dance Lodge is a step in the right direction to start addressing these types of inequalities.
"When you have urban Indigenous peoples struggling, it's easy to point fingers and say that they are homeless or struggling for X reasons, but it's all part of a much bigger national story,” Fortin said. “The housing crisis is a complex and systemic failure and it disproportionately affects Indigenous people. The Horse Dance Lodge acknowledges some of that and it gives people a place where there's hope."
Traditionally, cities in Canada have not been welcoming places for many Indigenous peoples and Fortin sees projects like Horse Dance Lodge as an opportunity for Indigenous people to reoccupy urbanized lands. But beyond this, he's particularly excited about the programming that will be available for the community through the space.
"I'm inspired by the people bringing these projects together,” he said. “It's hard work to get the funding together; it's hard work to get a building plan, to work within tight budgets, lobby for money, pick a site that works. Then you're committing to programming over many years. ... There has been a ton of careful thought put into the running of this building."
Regina Treaty / Status Indian Services (RT/SIS) will be operating the programming that will serve the people living at Horse Dance Lodge, or misatimosimôwin mîhkowâp in Cree.
Tanya Ritchotte with RT/SIS says she’s looking forward to providing that support.
"The folks that are here would be at risk of houselessness or homelessness if they weren't receiving the supports that we're going to be offering them,” Ritchotte said. “It is a wraparound of human support services including mental health, addictions and culture. ... It's incredible what it's going to offer; it's going to mean so much to people coming to live here."
Fortin says one of the struggles with a rapid housing project is feeling like you're getting the right level of community engagement, and he was pleased that his firm David T. Fortin Architect (DTFA) was able to keep close contact with both Silver Sage and RT/SIS throughout the project.
They partnered with Linda Obey-Lavallee to design the sun shades, the signs for each of the units, and the interior paint selections, and Celina Rios-Nadeau, an intern architect at DTFA, said these special touches gives Horse Dance Lodge a homey feel that you don't often get in transitional housing.
“It brings calmness to the space,” Rios-Nadeau said. “We wanted to make it a warm and comfortable environment for the families and the services that will be provided here."
Striking features on the exterior include tipi poles wrapping around the entrance, “almost like a hug,” as Celina describes it, and the bright red sun shades designed by Obey-Lavallee.
"I really hope this project sets a new standard for transitional housing,” Rios-Nadeau said. “These kinds of projects really inspire us to engage in meaningful ways with our community … and bring life and spirit to these spaces that oftentimes are quite institutional."
Silver Sage Housing President and CEO Natoshia Bastien says Horse Dance Lodge is a place of wellness, and tenants will be able to realize their goals of moving along the housing continuum.
“It feels really rewarding and humbling to have the building delivered,” Bastien said. “Now the real work begins, with RT/SIS operating and supporting the tenants who will reside in the building.”
David Fortin describes Horse Dance Lodge as a humble, minimalist celebration of Indigenous culture with a big impact. There's a common gathering space on the main floor with space for computers for the residents to use, and the site around the building will evolve over time, with the potential for gatherings, tipi raisings, and a garden.
"The hope for everybody is that people in this building will thrive in this city,” Fortin said. “Their lives are going to take a big step forward.”
He hopes the thoughtful design of the building will positively impact the people who come through the space.
"The space that we inhabit can actually deeply impact our behaviours, our mood, everything about our day to day lives, particularly from a colonial lens or decolonial lens,” he said. "It's a huge responsibility for designers to challenge themselves to go above and beyond just aesthetics. ... It's important to have a beautiful world — a beautiful world is an inspiring one — but it also has to be wired into the realities of people's lives.”
To others working towards building Indigenous-led housing projects, Natoshia offers words of encouragement.
“Believe in your capacity to work with partners in a good way, and make community-led projects reality,” Bastien said. “If you have a goal, find the right partner and find the right style. It’s very important to listen to the community and their needs when working on the design.”
It was through preliminary design concepts that Natoshia learned the Silver Sage apartment-style project was a fit for modular building. Natoshia credits Big Block Construction for being that partner that took care of things.
“I’ve been in the housing field for over 20 years and this has been the smoothest, quickest, and most stress-free project for me,” Bastien said. “I had a fantastic experience working with Big Block Construction. The Big Block team is very experienced in what they do, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable. They have great problem solving skills.”
For Regan Morris, Silver Sage Director of Development and Acquisitions, it was Big Block’s knowledge, transparency, and honesty that made managing the project an enjoyable experience.
“Big Block’s support, the timelines, cost-saving, and the end product – it was amazing,” he said. “Six months ago there was no building here, and now we’re moving people in.”
When Morris saw the modules as they were being built off-site on a factory assembly line, he was impressed by the amount of engineering, efficiency, and attention to detail.
“My outlook on modular construction has completely changed after this building,” he said. “I’m all for modular now.”
While Silver Sage focuses primarily on providing housing for First Nation people living in urban areas, Regan said First Nations can also look to modular construction as an opportunity to provide many new homes on reserve.
“People on the Nations right now are suffering with houselessness and modular is a great answer,” he said.
While wrapping up the rapid housing project means Morris is already free to focus on new development opportunities on and off reserve, he’s looking forward to seeing people’s reactions to their suites at Horse Dance Lodge.
“It's special to supply a home for people looking for housing," he said.
Big Block CEO Alex Miller and VP Community Development Nick Sackville will be sharing the rapid housing story of Horse Dance Lodge on Nov. 2, hosted by the Canadian Home Builders’ Association.
The webinar is open to all, and you can register here: http://chba.ca/modular