By David T. Fortin & Jason Surkan
In 1986, an award-winning interpretive centre opened at the Batoche National Historic Site in Saskatchewan. A central intent of the design, by renowned Winnipeg firm IKOY, was to “interpret the history of the Métis settlement,” yet their decision to shape the main gallery of the industrial-looking building after the hexagonal section of a rifle barrel pointed directly, and intentionally, at the church, is as jarring as their description of the project. (1) The site, they wrote, “has come to symbolize the Métis’ last stand as united people, the end of their independence, and the eventual closing of the Canadian frontier.” (2) Not only did the project explicitly ignore contemporary Métis political and cultural vibrancy in the area, which welcomes over 5000 people a day for the annual Back to Batoche Festival. The juxtaposition of the building confirms a complete disregard for its historical and material context.
But what is Métis architecture beyond log cabin nostalgia, anyways? What is unique about Métis buildings and what value do they have beyond their history? While various other indigenous vernacular typologies, such as the igloo, teepee, longhouse, and wigwam, are recognized in Canada, there is limited understanding of Métis customs related to buildings and infrastructure. Recreation halls, schools, housing projects, and various other structures built in Métis communities would seem to have minimal cultural impact, if at all.
There are several reasons to discuss Métis architecture. First, it allows architecture to be appreciated alongside other Métis cultural forms. Second, it encourages Métis community members and leaders, as well as architects and builders, to better interrogate future proposals for their invested responses to a specifically Métis cultural context. As Henry Glassie writes, the study of vernacular architecture “seeks ways to use buildings as evidence in order to tell better versions of the human story.” Following the recent Daniels case, which reaffirmed the Métis as “Indians” as per the Constitution Act, and amid ongoing debates about the very nature of Métis identity and registration across Canada, Métis architecture can contribute a chapter to the unfolding Métis story.
The St. Laurent region is often solely linked to the 1885 conflict with the Canadian government at Batoche, but it also offers insights into distinctly Métis ways of building and living. Here, the Métis most clearly exhibited a distinct “conceptual order” of habitation as described in archeological research led by Simon Fraser University professor David Burley in the 1980s. Though originally interested in the Métis shift to a pastoral lifestyle that occurred in the region during the1870s, Burley’s work confirmed earlier studies suggesting that a Métis vernacular existed in the region, with significant implications for understanding “the concepts by which Métis ethnicity can be defined and identified.” (4) As Burley writes,
The unconscious rules of Métis behaviour conform to a conceptual order that, in its basic structure, is reproduced in day-to-day activities and in the built environment. This structure is “holistic,” integrating continuity in the culture/nature relationship, an unbounded and asymmetric perception of space and overriding concerns with egalitarian principles of social organization and consensus. (5)
Burley recognizes that “traits and styles” inevitably shift with time, but a spatial conceptual order that is “regulated by unconscious rules and principles” allows for wider interpretation and diachronic relevance. (6) While this holds immense promise for further architectural consideration, other essential observations by Burley, that the Métis “had adopted a predominantly European material culture by the mid-1800s,” and that construction of the folk homes had ceased by the 1930s, has arguably truncated subsequent studies into Métis material and tectonic distinctions. (7) Kenneth Frampton’s now seminal essay establishing “critical regionalism” as a polemical response to universalization in architecture cautioned against such assimilating “threats” to local cultures, laying out six points to address this “conflict” in order to “withstand the relentless onslaught of global modernization.” (8) His provocation to forge a “resistance” to cultural oppression in architecture resonates strongly with the history of the Métis who similarly view the 1885 Batoche uprising as a political “resistance” rather than a rebellion (as it is commonly labeled), identify as "the people who own themselves," and embrace the infinity symbol on their flag to assert "the existence of a people forever." (9) Thus, as is the case with all indigenous groups currently grappling with the impact of globalization, Burley’s research and current field studies offer a timely opportunity to interrogate the potential role of architecture in strengthening Métis cultural identity moving forward.
One of the primary spatial conditions that historically distinguished the Métis from other groups in the prairies emerged from their overriding emphasis on egalitarian principles of social organization and consensus. This was reflected in many facets of life. Socially, this is best illustrated by the historic buffalo hunts that took place on the Great Plains. Hunting formed the foundation of Métis society and structured their leadership, identity, and unity as a nation. The hunt was organized according to a fair and equal share of responsibilities and duties. Architecturally, this overarching emphasis on egalitarianism and social consensus influenced the layout of the earliest Métis settlements, the hivernant (wintering) camps. Formed through kinship ties and necessary for winter survival, the organization of the camps allowed each family group unrestricted access to the landscape contained therein. No concerns of hierarchy or social status affected the spatial location or orientation of structures, which were laid out according to the landscape features of each specific site. For example, at the sprawling Four Mile Coulee and Chimney Coulee, cabins were spread out along a trail network, while constrained sights such as Pettite Ville and Kis-sis-away Tanner's Camp led to tighter nucleation.
Such a spatially equitable system persisted in the planning of the homesteads in the St. Laurent district as the Métis transitioned to a primarily agricultural lifestyle. The river lot system used by their ancestors at Red River (which had been adopted from the St. Lawrence in Quebec) was valuable because it allowed all community members equal access to both road and river. Burley observes that “the narrowness of the lots allowed for kinship and social relations to be maintained…[while the] River lots were alike and this reinforced Métis concepts of egalitarianism.” (10) Individual houses carried this into their interiors with open floor plans lacking partition walls and European concepts of privacy: “The interior of the house is commensurate with a lack of boundedness ... an environment in which Métis sense of communalism, consensualism and equity were pre-eminent.” (11)
The way the Métis oriented buildings in the landscape shows a deep connection to nature retained from the pre-homestead era. When the Métis ceased to hunt buffalo and settled into more permanent structures than the quasi-nomadic hivernant camps, their relationship to nature inevitably changed. However, “the structuring principles of [the Métis] world-view continued to affect the Métis response to land.” (12) The homesteads of the region demonstrated this connection to the landscape through the way structures were placed within the river lots, preserving meaningful links to the river as well as other landscape features, which were viewed as “organic systems with which to interact.” (13) While non-Métis homesteads in the region had fences to divide the land, planted “shelter-belts” to separate the yard from the surrounding landscape, and oriented outbuildings inward to form courtyard spaces, the Métis homesteads instead oriented the buildings outwards to their surroundings, used informal “string” arrangements of buildings relating to specific landscape features, did not delineate property boundaries with fencing, and exhibited a general “preference for open unstructured space” that was consistent with settlement patterns from Red River. (14) Highlighting these characteristics, structures like the Letendre home, one of the most prominent in the region, and the Caron farmhouse at the Batoche National Historic Site emphasize the role of the front porch in blurring the boundary between interior and exterior space.
Such a process of blurring boundaries is inherent to a Métis dual worldview. The overall design of the Métis folk house reveals a unique tension between order and informality. As Burley writes,
The Métis adopted the [Georgian, or Euro-Canadian] façade but not the interior…the symbolic message of the Métis house front masks the reality of Métis cultural values…This built environment reflects openness, informality, lack of rigidly defined structure, and continuity with the landscape. (15)
Thus, the open informality of the interior was a distinctly Métis feature not only for its egalitarian qualities, but also for its adaptability. The large room could easily transform from a dining or living space into a gathering space or dance floor, facilitating cultural events and everyday practices. Prominent Métis author and playwright Maria Campbell recalls that the shared open space also provided a sense of safety and security for women and children, with the grandmothers often sleeping near the door. (16) According to Burley, this kind of interior was the antithesis of the compartmentalized Victorian homes that reflected a highly structured and specialized society. Freelance writer Graham Chandler has further suggested that despite the symmetrical Georgian exteriors, the open and communal Métis interiors were closer to those of the Plains teepee. (17)
A unique style of home building developed as a direct outcome of the Métis homesteading process, where combinations of various appropriated technologies and assemblies contributed to a distinct material culture. Gottfried Semper’s writings on the tectonic, which informed Frampton’s central positions on regionalism, describes four elements of architecture: earthwork, enclosure, framework/roof, and hearth.
Earthwork – The earthwork plays a primary role in providing the Métis folk house with a telluric mass to anchor it to the ground. There are a few salient features: 1) that the houses were typically set onto river stone footings, 2) that a root cellar with dirt floors and wooden shelves often existed and was accessed through a trap door in the home, and 3) flagstone surfaces at the entry porch of buildings like the Caron farmhouse, for example, suggest a tactile and tectonic continuity with the river stone foundations used in the houses. While none of these features are unique to the Métis, they suggest a strategic engagement with the ground in the overall design and use of the space.
Enclosure – It is evident that the St. Laurent Métis quickly appropriated available local materials for constructing their community while adapting rapidly to the new environment, as the folk homes built in the region shared many common elements. They were typically one-and-a-half to two storey homes constructed of white poplar logs from the surrounding forests. The logs were most often half dovetail notched, assembled in a crib structure, and finished with framed gable ends, plank roof decking, and spruce shake shingles. Slight variations exist in log joinery: some are half notched and others saddle notched, both of which were departures from the Red River frame style homes predominant in Manitoba (a variation of traditional post and plank construction inherited from eastern Canada and Europe). A staircase attached to an end wall led up to a loft.
Consistent with Semper’s critique of the historical tendency to cover over the tectonic expression of building, the walls often used chinking to smooth them over before being plastered inside and out with a straw/mud mixture and whitewashed annually with lime. With the arrival of Ukrainian homesteaders around 1900, many Métis also began to lath their houses with small willows on an angle, fastened at each end with small nails to help hold the plaster mud in place. Despite the documented use of the lime whitewashing, several etchings and photographs suggest many early Métis homes instead left the log construction exposed. and, thus, the tectonics of the construction cannot be dismissed as related to the Semper’s idea of enclosure.
If, as argued by Semper, Frampton, and various others since, tectonics have ontological significance, the role of the log enclosure, from a Métis indigenous perspective, is essential. For instance, the contemporary homes implemented in Métis communities nearly always employ conventional light-framed construction, often pre-manufactured and completely disconnected from their site. Rather than considering contemporary ways of building with structural wood systems, the mass, texture, smell and acoustic role of the logs has been essentially erased from the everyday experience of Métis people, despite it being recognized as their traditional way of building, and hence living.
Framework and Roof – Despite primarily using stacked log construction with dovetail and other corner notching, the continued use of the Red River frame for additions (such as lean-to kitchens) and other small buildings in the St. Laurent communities suggests it was a valued method of construction that significantly contributed to Métis material culture. Variations of its use include using a center post in the gable that poetically supports the ridge beam, as seen in historical photos of Métis families in Buffalo Narrows. The roof was originally made of smaller wood poles and covered with sod, but this evolved to more conventional wood framing, decking, and shingles as dimensioned lumber became available. Tectonically, the relationship thus evolved as the heavier mass of the logs supported a lighter, framed roof (compared to the heavier sod roof of earlier structures).
Hearth – It is worth acknowledging that the hearth played a central role in every Métis-designed and built home of the era. While Semper closely linked the hearth to the earthwork, as would have been the case in the earlier hivernant house fireplaces, in Métis folk homes, commercially made stoves were tectonically independent while still playing an essential role in the overall use of the home by spatially anchoring the open interiors and providing centralized heating and cooking facilities.
Though Burley concluded that the building of Métis folk houses had essentially terminated by the 1930s, there are some remarkable similarities between these historic houses and contemporary Métis-built homes. For example, a community member from East Prairie settlement in Alberta recently chose a traditional lifestyle over government-implemented options by building his home on a remote site, a choice that recalls the role of site in Métis folk homes. He designed the house to directly respond to the specificities of its environment—in this case a site on the edge of a muskeg with existing trees framing the entry and views shaping the building’s orientation and form, as well as a second floor covered balcony that wrapped around the structure. In Fish Lake, Saskatchewan, another recent Métis-built home is intimately informed by its environment. Located at the end of a rough, meandering mud road, the small, two-story off-grid dwelling sits atop an incline that affords views of the surrounding boreal landscape of rolling hills and of a small lake to the west. The placement of the home on the site is directly positioned to maximize passive environmental gains while sheltering it from the harsh climate (a stand of tall aspen trees protects the house from high winds on three sides). Meanwhile, its orientation maximizes solar gains in the living area during winter months while the eaves are the correct pitch and length to shield from the hot summer sun. Similar to the Letendre, Caron, and East Prairie houses, a covered balcony sits on the west end of the dwelling and is often used during summer months as a dining and living space.
Related to earthwork, the Fish Lake home sinks into the earth a half-story, while at Buffalo Lake settlement, a resident attached a root cellar with an entry from the basement of his government-provided home. At Elizabeth settlement, a similar early community root cellar has been preserved. There is also evidence that, as in the construction of early Métis folk houses, current community members retain the capacity to adapt to available materials using unique construction methods. For example, the Fish Lake resident worked as a lineman for many years, and his familiarity with power-line construction and connection details emerge in his home. The house displays a combination of rustic elements and state of the art technologies, a distinctly hybrid approach. Likewise, at East Prairie settlement, the home presents an insightful example of contemporary Métis construction. Similar to the folk houses, the East Prairie home begins at ground level with 12”x12” hewn logs square notched and stacked at the corners. However, it then tectonically transitions to wood framing and a combination of plywood (exterior) and coroplast (interior) sheathing above. The details of the house are ad-hoc, yet the combination of traditional and prefabricated elements follow a series of transitions from the stereotomic logs to the dimensioned lumber rafters in a way that could be seen as similar to the hybrid construction of the home at Fish Lake and tectonically linked to earlier folk homes. The interiors of both of these contemporary homes unmistakably recall the folk homes in their lack of compartmentalization or hierarchy, their stoves similarly providing heat and spatial focus.
Frampton has recently conceded that what he had once hoped critical regionalism could achieve—resistance to the thrust of modernism’s unabated goal of universal neutralization—has its inherent limitations. It cannot, he states, “alter the dominant spectacular, technoscientific global corporate discourse,” that arguably fed the original design of the Batoche interpretive center (which has since been retrofitted, at least in part due to its aesthetic disconnect). (20) However, he adds that “[critical regionalism] is nonetheless still able to articulate a resistant place-form within a smaller society, which, here and there, may maintain a dissenting cultural and political position.” (21) It is possible for an architecture of Métis resistance to persevere that celebrates the infinitely rich combination of regionally specific spatial and material traditions developed during the past centuries by Métis people. The folk houses discussed here represent one of many cultural traditions carried by regional knowledge holders that can help inform this resistance. Hunting cabins, smoke shacks, meat-drying racks, boat building, and other Métis artistic forms all hold tremendous potential to inspire meaningful designs that staunchly resist generic buildings motivated solely by standard detailing and profit margins, as well as, perhaps worse, those prioritizing international design intrigue over community pride and wellness.
* This research is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
(1) “Batoche Interpretive Centre,” IKOY Architects, accessed January 21, 2016. http://www.ikoy.com.
(3) Henry Glassie, Material Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999): 231.
(4) David V Burley, Gayel A. Horsfall, and John D. Brandon, Structural considerations of Métis ethnicity: An archaeological, architectural, and historical study (Vermillion, S.D.: University of South Dakota Press, 1992), 2.
(5) Ibid, 2-3.
(6) Ibid, 2.
(7) Ibid. 1-2, 134.
(8) Kenneth Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance,” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend: Bay Press, 1983), 29.
(9) Dorion, L. & Préfontaine, D.R. (1999). Deconstructing Métis historiography: Giving voice to the Métis people. In L.J. Barkwell, L. Dorion, & D.R. Préfontaine (Eds.), Resources for Métis researchers (pp. 3-30). Winnipeg, MB: Louis Riel Institute & Saskatoon, SK: Gabriel Dumont Institute.
(10) Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon, Structural considerations of Métis ethnicity, 158.
(11) David Burley, “Creolization and late nineteenth century Métis vernacular log architecture on the South Saskatchewan River,” Historical Archaeology 34 (2000): 32.
(13) Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon, Structural considerations of Métis ethnicity, 120.
(14) David Burley and Gayel A. Horsfall, “Vernacular Houses and Farmsteads of the Canadian Métis,” Journal of Cultural Geography 10 (1) (1989): 29.
(15) Ibid. 30.
(16) Personal interview, June 25, 2016.
(17) Graham Chandler, “The language of Métis folk houses,” The Beaver (Aug-Sept, 2003): 39-41.
(18) Maria Campbell, Halfbreed (Toronto: Seal, 1973): 1.
(19) Diane Payment, The free people - Le gens libres: A history of the Métis community of Batoche, Saskatchewan (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2009).
(20) Kenneth Frampton, “ Critical regionalism revisited,” in Brian MacKay-Lyons, Local Architecture: Building Place, Craft, and Community, ed. Robert McCarter (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2015): 29.
Born in Calgary, David T. Fortin grew up in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan before studying at the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Calgary, and the University of Edinburgh. He is a registered architect in the province of Alberta where he worked for McKinley Burkart Architects and GEC Architecture. He is one of the founding faculty members at the McEwen School of Architecture in Sudbury, Ontario and is a member of the Métis Nation of Ontario.
Born and raised in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Jason Surkan holds a B.Arch from Carleton University and is currently a graduate student in architecture at UBC. He has worked intermittently for Douglas Cardinal Architect since 2014 as well as Oxbow Architecture in Saskatoon. He aims to create culturally contextual work that is appropriate for the social, economic and political environment it will perform within. He is a member of Fish Lake Métis Local #108, and the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan.