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Old Stories, New Ways

Old Stories, New Ways

Conversations About an Architecture Inspired by Indigenous Ways of Knowing
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The sharing of knowledge amongst Indigenous people is through the telling of stories—stories that are connected to the land and stories that connect people. This is my story, the story about the transformation of an architectural practice in Canada. That transformation occurred over several decades in part because of my commitment to community-based design, the subject of my MBA at the University of Alberta, but also because of my Northern experiences. Many of my early projects, undertaken with Richard Isaac, were in northern Canadian Inuit and Inuvialuit communities, which were committed to Indigenous ways of knowing and being. Through working with these communities on various health, educational and cultural projects, Richard and I became convinced that a new way of architectural practice was not only possible but also desirable. It would be a practice that was sustainable, community based and, at least spiritually, community owned.

So we established Manasc Isaac in 1997. Already convinced that community engagement and sustainable design were keys to good design and successful projects, we continued our practice with the Indigenous communities of the North. Over the years, our partnership grew into a practice of over fifty people in three offices in Edmonton, Calgary and Bucharest. We believe that the success of our practice has been its continued commitment to community-based design focused on people and their earth, water and sky. We have also been very aware of the importance of harnessing the sun, particularly in the North!

With that knowledge, and persuaded that sustainable architecture was the future, we launched the first Sustainable Building Symposium in Edmonton in 1997. This focus on sustainable architecture gave our practice a truly national mission. As president of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada in the early 2000s, I was also able to continue to spread the word about the benefits of greening our profession, and I was involved in the founding of the Canada Green Building Council, serving on its founding board for seven years.

I also saw that more people in northern communities and in remote areas of Canada would benefit from finding a pathway to the profession, so I worked with Athabasca University to achieve that goal. It was another way of giving back to the North that had taught me so much.

I have been given so many stories over the years, and storytelling is also part of who I am. I’ve learned from Indigenous traditions of storytelling and add them to my own traditions of Jewish storytelling. I begin with some reflections of my very first year in Canada because when I hear of Cree people who grew up being told to hide who they are, so they can fit in, I am reminded of this story.


“These people must be crazy—they could get themselves killed,” remarked my mother in her elegant German, as we walked around our new neighbourhood that first winter in Canada. We were exploring the streets of St. Laurent, our new home in a newly developing suburb in Montreal. We had just arrived, truly fresh off the boat, a few months earlier.

The day we arrived on the SS Arcadia in the port of Montreal, my cousin, Simon Gartenberg, an architect in Montreal, came to the dock to pick us up in his red convertible. This introduction made our new country feel exciting and glamorous. We had, after all, never had a car of our own, much less a red convertible. It was the early 1960s, and the magic of cars was all around.

Two weeks later, school started, and there I was without a word of English. By December I had English figured out—but not much else about the still-strange world around me.

In every other window, or so it seemed that winter evening, was an electric menorah with candle-shaped light bulbs. Turns out, this was the Jewish festival of lights, or Chanukah. To my six-year-old eyes, these sparkling lights looked innocent enough—not unlike the coloured lights sparkling on all the other houses. I knew nothing of being Jewish, or being a Holocaust survivor, but sensing my mother’s worry, I asked what made these lights dangerous. Catching herself, my mother tried to explain why people in some places could be killed for making their unique culture visible. She said something about that not being the case here, and something about being tolerant. That’s all I remember, but the story stuck.

At home, we had candles too—not electric ones, just small, colourful, twirly wax candles that were placed carefully in the menorah after the curtains were drawn. We lit candles and recited Hebrew prayers. Our Chanukah candles, lit night after night in our modern metal menorah, were a bit like the ones in the windows. But they weren’t in the window. And they weren’t electric. Here in Canada, “modern” families seemed to do things differently. Maybe my parents and grandparents were just old-fashioned, I reasoned, coming as we did from an old country.

Years later, the story made more sense. Being Jewish could be dangerous. It was something to be kept hidden behind curtains, in the privacy of our own home. Jewish people had been killed for just being. We were survivors of some unspeakable things—we were the lucky ones. So we had to keep some things secret. In Canada, people didn’t seem to understand that they had to be careful. But we knew.

Outside of home, we were supposed to look “normal,” “modern” and Canadian. Once in a while, we were invited to friends’ homes and got a peek into their English-speaking world of stay-home moms, daytime TV and after-school cookies. At home, we had our own ways, our secret candle-lighting ways. At home, we spoke German and Romanian and French, languages that were yet another secret, or so it seemed.

Maybe every family has secrets—maybe every family has an inside world and an outside world—it’s hard to say.


Here I share my own, very personal story about my Northern transformation—a story I will try to tell as best as I can, in the Indigenous way.

In the summer of 1985, after a year of travelling around the world, I moved to Inuvik to look after the construction of the new air terminal building. Knowing little of the Arctic, I was curious to learn about the ways people have lived in the Mackenzie Delta for hundreds or maybe thousands of years. Turns out that Inuvik was a new town—designed and built in the optimistic 1960s as a part of Diefenbaker’s “Roads to Riches” project. For centuries, Inuvialuit people had lived in camps and communities such as Aklavik and Tuktoyaktuk. They lived by the water. The new community, Inuvik, was built on high land to reduce the effect of flooding. Inuvialuit people were resettled there by the federal government. Inuvik had schools, churches, missionaries, a hospital and even an airport. Twenty years later, by the 1980s, a good number of families still lived in Aklavik. Why? I asked innocently. “Because there’s food there.” Oh! People chose to live by the water so they can trap and fish. That was my first glimpse into the traditional way of life of the Western Arctic.

Being in Inuvik day after day begged the question, What lies beyond the town, out there on the delta? If that’s where people lived, and still live, what was it like? I’d heard of people driving “the winter road” and was curious to discover where it might lead. One Saturday, I got up the courage to drive from Inuvik to Aklavik. Carefully packed candles, food and blankets were in the car, for a possible night on the delta. This winter road trip came with lots of warnings from friends.

“You should set out early in the day so you can make it back before dark,” they admonished.

The Mackenzie Delta is a series of interwoven streams that connect the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean, changing and reshaping itself, year after year. The winding “winter road” is simply a frozen and ploughed channel of the delta, new every winter. With few cars travelling back and forth, the two-hour drive promised to be unnerving. No signs, no sense of direction and little sense of how far there was to go. The road turned on itself, around bends and behind steep banks. Was this the right direction? There was only one road—so that was it—I had to trust the path. In the days before GPS and cell phones, and without a map, trust was all there was to work with. A small blue dot in an endless, white landscape. The people of the delta understand the world in this way—water that is always in motion and always changing. Like stories.

Travelling along the Dempster Highway from Inuvik to Dawson City a couple of years later, another perspective on the relationship between people and the land became clear. Heading south, we stopped in Fort McPherson, and then in Arctic Red River. Can you really drive south for three days and arrive in Whitehorse? One of our travelling companions, from Arctic Red River, spoke and read syllabic written Gwi'chin. At the border between the Northwest Territories and Yukon was the obligatory sign. In English, one side of the sign read “Welcome to the Yukon” and the other side, “Welcome to the Northwest Territories.” The Gwi'chin text was curiously the same on both sides of the sign, and when I asked for a translation, my companions laughed.

“It says, ‘This land has no borders,’” they explained. The joke is on those who imagine the borders, it seems. So a land without borders and without static definition emerges as a way of understanding place—land and water and stories that are ever-changing.

In the summer of 1986, the Dene Tha' First Nation’s community school in Chateh, in northern Alberta, needed evaluation. Like many schools built in the 1960s, it was showing its age. Unlike the modern 1960s’ schools I’d seen before, it was set in the lowest lying land, and the building was damp and mouldy. Wild horses roamed freely in the community and found shelter in the front entrance of the school. Kids and teachers used other entrances to avoid the smell of the horse urine. Neither the Elders, nor hereditary Chief Harry Chonkolayii nor younger Council members could remember why the school was located where it was, or how it was designed and constructed. Like many things that had occurred in the brief fifty years since missionaries first arrived at Chateh, things had just happened. There was much to wonder about—how did the school reflect the community’s needs, and what could be done to improve the conditions that were there?

We embarked on conversations to discover what the school should really be like. Chief Chonkolay told Dene stories and drew teepees and kids and parents and teachers together, as stick figures. Meetings started with prayers—spoken softly in Dene. There were stories about how children should learn, translated for me from Dene. He also talked about the creek that floods, and how the school should not be wet when the floods come. Water always seems to show up.

Stories often seem to have water in them. Rivers, creeks, floods, flowing braided deltas, lakes. Water seems to be a connecting thread—and maybe all the water in the world is interconnected and always moving—active—like people and their interwoven relationships.

There are a few writers who weave the stories most clearly. Thomas King in his book The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative writes,

“It’s about the earth and how it floats in space on the back of a turtle. I’ve heard this story many times, and each time someone tells the story, it changes. Sometimes the change is simply in the voice of the storyteller. Sometimes the change is in the details. Sometimes in the order of events. Other times it’s the dialogue or the response of the audience. But in all the tellings of all the tellers, the world never leaves the turtle’s back. And the turtle never swims away.”

So that’s what’s interesting about stories—they always change, and they always stay the same—they depend on the storyteller and on the listeners for their meaning. The more that we understand about stories, the more we realize how many layers there really can be—and how stories are places to store and share knowledge—like buildings are places that store and share personal and collective stories.

“Architecture depends,” says Jeremy Till. Architecture depends on the people who are designing, building and experiencing the spaces. We can tuck stories into nooks and crannies so they can be discovered. Or we can shape buildings so they embrace stories and allow people to interpret them. Or we can ignore the stories—but they will still be read and interpreted. So we may as well decide on how we would like the story to go. Architecture can be understood as another way that we humans share stories.

Salman Rushdie’s only children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, describes a magical place called the “Sea of Stories.” All the stories that there ever were exist in the sea of stories, he says. Storytellers are people who have the gift of being able to fish out a story and share it. Is that true of architecture as well? Are all the spaces and buildings that will ever exist already designed and built in the sea of stories? And are we all fishing for stories and buildings that are resonant for us? These stories are related to the people and the process of designing and creating new and renovated buildings.

In this book, you are invited to meander with us, through stories of designing and building in Indigenous communities in western and northern Canada, where we’ve worked over the last thirty years. The stories might link together for you, in a circle. Or maybe like water, they’ll flow together and apart, around obstacles. At the end, the stories will connect, and loop back on themselves.

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