Exploring Aboriginal Marks on Edmonton
In June 2010 I presented some of my ideas about ‘Edmonton as an Aboriginal City’ at NextGen‘s Pecha Kucha #7. My talk was a brief summary of my observations of how Aboriginal history and presence is acknowledged in the built environment in Edmonton. Edmonton spends an awful lot of time and energy trying to set itself apart as a ‘world-class city’, and yet it still relies very heavily on building styles and approaches rooted in other places. Would it be so radical for us to focus on our own, local roots to develop a unique and powerful indigenous design voice? How can our buildings and infrastructure better reflect the rich and diverse cultural histories that make Edmonton what it is today?
As a Metis person, it really strikes me that there are very few structures or places in this city that tell the story of the Indigenous peoples who were here before the city was built, or who make the city what it is today. My Dad tells all sorts of poignant stories about growing up Metis in Edmonton in a time when it was socially unacceptable to be Aboriginal. And these stories make me yearn for a connection to my ancestors. However, very few of these clues or links exist in the physical fabric of the city. Even the little house in Rossdale Flats (Pehonan) that my great-grandparents moved to after they retired from farming was razed to make way for the James MacDonald Bridge. So, as a person with a passion for urban studies, I set out last year to try and document bits of the city that do celebrate our Indigenous roots.
There were a few things I had in mind, like the murals along the LRT tracks east of 93rd street:
(painted by the McCauley mural artists—a group that included “local Aboriginal artists, youth and university/college students”—thanks to Paula Kirman for making sure I could credit the artists correctly!)
and the Rossdale cemetery in the Rossdale Flats (Pehonan):
Other Indigenous monuments and spaces were pleasant surprises on my trips around the city, like the Aboriginal Walk of Honour—Neka’new’ak—at Amiskwaskahegan (Beaver Hills Park). I’ve walked by this park countless times and never realized this was part of it!
I also did not realize the Metis significance of the Garneau neighbourhood until historical geographer Dr. Frank Tough informed me the area is named after Laurent Garneau, a Metis political figure in Edmonton’s early years.
These are just a few expressions of Aboriginality in Edmonton, and they certainly do not reflect the diversity or richness of our Aboriginal heritage. Edmonton currently has the second largest Aboriginal population in Canada. Yet, looking around at the physical shape of the city, you would hardly know it. Whereas cities like Winnipeg and Vancouver have managed to weave Aboriginal history into the built form through spaces like The Forks and artwork by prominent Aboriginal artists, Edmonton is conspicuously blank. This has implications for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Edmontonians. After my Pecha Kucha presentation people asked: “so how do we address these issues?”. Good question. First of all, buildings and place names tell stories, and these stories shape who we are, how we view ourselves, who ‘belongs’ in the city, and what choices we make as we build. Dr. Dwayne Donald has written very eloquently about these issues, and I urge you to read his work here and listen to him here. He calls these notions ‘origin stories’, and they have a lot of power over how we view ourselves.
Building on Dr. Donald’s notion of ‘origin stories’ and his writings about how our spatial organization reflects our sociocultural relationships, I wonder how the stories we currently tell about ourselves through our built form and place names reflect our concepts of who we are as Edmontonians. We need to re-incorporate more Aboriginal names into our city’s landscape in order to more accurately reflect where Edmonton came from, and to help envision where Edmonton is going. We have already assigned Cree names to some industrial areas and to a few neighbourhoods in South Edmonton. We also have Amiskwaskahegan (aka Beaver Hills House Park) on Jasper Ave and 105 street. However, there is space to make these names more explicit and meaningful—to name civic buildings after Aboriginal leaders who have contributed to Edmonton’s growth. The city has made strides through such efforts as the Edmonton Urban Aboriginal Accord and Wicihitowin Circle. However, given the very rapid growth of Edmonton’s Aboriginal population the city should hire an Aboriginal City Planner. This will allow us to address the needs of Aboriginal Edmontonians and to meaningfully establish a physical acknowledgment of our Aboriginality.
There is space to incorporate Aboriginality into the design and building of our city through innovative architecture that celebrates our unique geographic and historical realities. Do we really need more peach stucco California-style condos? What about examining the tools and practices that Aboriginal people employed on the plains for thousands of years? If Edmonton wants to set itself apart from other cities in Canada (and the world) we need to embrace our roots and incorporate this history into a unique architecture and design approach unlike anything else in the world. We must also do justice to the rich cultural heritage of the city; by better understanding our Aboriginal history we can also ensure we take the time to acknowledge and appreciate all the cultural threads that shape our city. There is no excuse, in this amazing city of ours, to mindlessly copy structures and design from other places.
That brings me to my final point. Edmonton is quick to erase its history, regardless of whether it is Aboriginal history or non-Aboriginal history, and this has a negative impact on what we build. It sometimes feels as if everything in the city is built under duress to meet an ever-expanding need or demand. This is partially because our rapid boom-bust cycles place pressure on developers and the city to accommodate rapidly fluctuating housing and infrastructure demands. Addressing the erasure of our Aboriginal roots can also help us to address our tendency to erase some very good architecture/developments in the city. If we pause to examine this erasure, and the negative impacts that hasty planning and building during boom cycles has on the city as a whole, we can build a more cohesive and ultimately more sustainable city. We need to be proud of the incredible things that have happened here, of the striking buildings that have been built over the years, and to acknowledge the usefulness and beauty in what is already in place. If we continue to tear down everything we have, how can we know who were are or where we are going?
To pause, to think, to celebrate. That is what I hope for this city as it surges ahead.
Zoe is an Edmontonian who is currently pursuing a PhD in Scotland. She’s passionate about cycling, urban design, Aboriginal issues, Metis history, and the environment. If you’d like to read more of what she has to say, check out her blog, the Urbane Adventurer.