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Aboriginal, Alberta, architecture, de/colonization, Edmonton, home, identity, Indigeneity, indigenous design, place, planning, prairies, representation, space

Decolonizing the City

I have been away from Edmonton since December 12th. In that time a lot has happened back home. I left Alberta just as Idle No More was gaining traction, and over the holidays I watched videos of round dance flash mobs in West Edmonton Mall, Kingsway Mall, Churchill Square and elsewhere with tears in my eyes. It was so moving to see Indigenous people occupying space, defying the ways in which Indigenous narratives have been sidelined in the ‘origin stories’ of Canada’s cities (to use a phrase that Dwayne Donald uses in his thought-provoking and important work).

There is something very powerful about quiet resistance. And there is something even more powerful in the ways that space can be re-imagined, re-engaged, and re-storied through movement, memory and collective gathering.

For the last three years I have ruminated about Indigeneity, architecture, identity and space in my writings on my urban affairs blog. (Inspired in part by Dwayne Donald’s work and also by Kamala Todd’s work on similar issues in Vancouver). I have focused pretty intently on architecture, arguing that Edmonton should learn its history, and in so doing develop an indigenous design voice (ie: an approach that is both ‘of this place’ and that acknowledges the First Peoples of the prairies). However, what I have humbly learned through the teachings of Idle No More is that we cannot focus only on buildings – as politically imbued as they are. We must also consider what anthropologist Tim Ingold terms the ‘dwelling perspective’ –  ie: it is not only about building, it is also about living and using and being in spaces.

For Indigenous people in Alberta, that means challenging the dominant and false idea, as Frank Tough has pointed out, that Urban Aboriginal people are a new phenomenon. The city was first and foremost Indigenous before it became Oil City, the Gateway to the North, or the City of Champions. We must remember that Indigenous people were moved off of large tracts of land to facilitate the homesteading and settling of Alberta in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As oral history has taught us, many of the promises that were made at the time Treaties were signed have not been fulfilled. The city has thus flourished at the expense of the sacred agreements that were made in order to make way for settlers to move to Alberta. This has given us the false sense that our city was a terra nullius or an unoccupied frontier that was built only by non-Indigenous hands.

As I watched Paula Kirman’s video of hundreds of people singing, drumming, dancing and being in West Edmonton Mall during a round dance flash mob in December,  I was struck by the ways that the space was transformed from a ‘cathedral of consumption’ to a space of resistance and celebration. The mall, one of the most complicated symbols of Edmonton’s place in the world, was being re-asserted as Indigenous space. This is an instructive way for us to reconsider who we are and what we want out of our city. Over the last few months, I have thought hard about how movement and architecture can be coupled to address historic wrongs.

What I hope is that Edmontonians are able to re-imagine their place in the world through not only building but doing and dwelling and being. Although not everyone is engaged in Idle No More, I suspect that its movement and meaning will have a lasting impact on how we understand ourselves as Edmontonians, Albertans and Canadians. Let us re-write our history in order to better address the realities of how we came to be. And let us use these teachings to develop an approach to building our city that is more actively engaged in understanding who we are and where we are going.

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