A new heart for Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, the design of the Mukwa Waakaa’igan Indigenous Centre of Cultural Excellence intends to provide a safe space, welcoming visitors from across the globe to engage with and learn from Indigenous heritage. The architectural design has been articulated through consideration of Indigenous teachings, from building form to material selection. The concept imagines a sloped configuration that recalls Mukwa – meaning Bear, the healer and protector – raising from the ground, walking to the North from the origin of life, water, in the direction of the Spirits.
At the gateway to campus is Shingwauk Hall, a former residential school that operated between 1875 and 1970. More than 1,000 Indigenous children attended the school, separating them from their families, cultures, languages, and traditions. Since the school’s official closure, the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association (CSAA) have been working with Algoma University to teach the truth about the residential school system’s history in Canada and work toward healing and reconciliation through the vision of a cross-cultural learning centre – a facility of healing, cultural preservation, dialogue, and transformation. The new Cultural Centre’s architectural expression comes from the land, rising up through three paths that represent the past, present, and future, and standing above the residential school. This lifted position provides visitors a stronger, more dominant, and dignified vantage point from which to look upon the site’s history.
Voices representing a wide range of involved parties, including residential school survivors (CSAA), student associations, university staff, as well as Indigenous elders and advisors have been, and continue to be, consulted extensively in order to achieve a decolonized approach to design.
The sustainable focus of this project is exemplified by the use of Mass Timber – a renewable resource that can be sourced locally, an effective insulator for the region’s extreme cold winter temperatures, and a natural sequester of carbon from the atmosphere. Through its integration with the existing natural landscape, Mukwa Waakaa’igan blurs the lines between building and land, indoor and outdoor, and creates choices for students, staff, visitors, and faculty. These choices are places of learning and gathering, ceremony and contemplation, but also pathways that permit encounter with the difficult history of the site, allow exploration of new experiences and perspectives, and reveal our place on the planet.