Perched on the northern end of the Severn River, more than 300 miles from the closest town, Fort Severn feels cut off from the rest of the world. The nearest permanent road in Ontario’s northernmost community—the aptly named Northern Ontario Resource Trail—ends 380 miles away and gives way to an ice road in the winter, or small plane in the summer, weather permitting.
Seemingly forgotten, this is one of the most remote and isolated communities in Canada. But it is also home to a First Nations community of about 500 people who, like a myriad of other Indigenous communities in northern Canada, have been plagued by a housing crisis for decades.
In 2019, the U.N. estimated that 25% of Indigenous Canadians live in overcrowded conditions, and 20% live in homes that need major repairs. Stretching from Windsor in the south to the northern shores of Hudson Bay, Ontario has more First Nations communities than any other region in Canada, with more than 30 of them considered remote.
In Fort Severn, two architecture firms—Two Row and KPMB—have partnered to develop a new housing typology that can fit the region’s subarctic climate as well as the community’s social needs. The project, which requires funding to move on to the building stage, recently won the Social Equity award from the World Architecture Festival. The pandemic put Indigenous communities at a higher risk for COVID-19, and it illustrates the urgent need for a more adaptable, resilient, and inclusive approach to architecture for Indigenous communities across Canada and beyond.
“Even in my community, there is still a huge housing shortage, even though unemployment is low, and there is lots of cash in the community,” says Brian K. Porter, principal at Two Row Architect, a 100% native-owned firm that operates from the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve near Niagara Falls. “We have a chronic housing shortage here, and the challenges get quadrupled when you go to remote communities experiencing the same kinds of things.”
In Fort Severn, the challenges abound. First, there’s the climate: With subarctic temperatures that rise above freezing only from April to October, Fort Severn is one of the coldest communities in Ontario. Then there is the quality of the housing, which compounded with extreme temperatures and cramped living conditions leads to high levels of humidity and mold-infested dwellings. And through it all, there is the lack of consistent federal funding and a colonial approach to housing that persists to this day.
In 1876, the Indian Act “reserved” British land for First Nations and appropriated the rest, creating the so-called reservation system, which continues to bar First Nations people from owning land. “You can’t secure a conventional mortgage when building in an Indigenous community [in Canada],” Porter explains.
If people want to build on-reserve homes today, they have to shoulder 100% of the building costs. And as 80% of reserves have median incomes below Canada’s poverty line, most people can’t afford to build a new home, which leads to shortages and overcrowding. In fly-in communities like Fort Severn, all of this is magnified by the logistical nightmare of transporting materials to a community so remote that construction materials are shipped only once or twice a year, by barge or ice road.
In light of all that, Two Row, in collaboration with KPMB Architects, devised a new type of building designed to combine high-energy performance (for those long, harsh winters) with easier construction. The new dwellings use stick-frame construction—a traditional framing technique that is familiar to local crews and that involves building the house on-site from individual pieces of lumber. Compared to the community’s existing housing stock, which largely consists of single-story bungalows that were built with minimal insulation and on boggy foundations, the new design also takes weather into consideration.
“In northern climates, houses should be designed more like passive houses,” says Shirley Blumberg, founding partner at KPMB. Designed to perform more efficiently than others, passive houses rely on airtight walls and high-performance windows that prevent outside air from coming in and conditioned air from going out.
Drawing from passive house standards—one of the most stringent in the world—the design features a “highly performative skin” that helps create an airtight envelope and thermal bridge between the outside and the inside. To further enhance comfort, living spaces are oriented to face south and benefit from passive solar heating. Entrance doors are positioned according to the prevailing wind direction to minimize snowdrift buildup in the winter. And houses are connected by a network of raised walkways and a communal courtyard that allows children to play.
In June and September 2019, the architects made two separate trips to Fort Severn, where they conducted a series of community engagement sessions with the residents. “High up on the list of requests was the connection to the land,” Blumberg says.
Most often, though, residents asked for something that’s “dry and warm, that performs,” Porter explains. “When we started to talk about cultural aspirations or trying to find ways to represent some of their culture in a contemporary way, they weren’t even giving themselves the chance to think about that type of thing,” he explains. “We [Indigenous communities] haven’t had the chance to define what our institutions and houses look like for 100 years.”
The housing shortage and living conditions in Fort Severn are far from an isolated case. Elsewhere in the northern reaches of Ontario, the Neskantaga First Nation community has had a boil-water advisory for more than 25 years. And in Nunavut, in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, the tuberculosis infection rate among Inuit was 26 times the national average in 2015, in large part due to overcrowded housing.
The architects’ work in Fort Severn is part of a broader project initiated by the National Research Council of Canada and the First Nations National Builder Officer Association. Spearheaded by David Fortin, a citizen of the Métis Nation of Ontario and a member of the RAIC Indigenous Task Force, which seeks ways to foster and promote Indigenous design in Canada, the project is an example of how community-led design can lead to better Indigenous housing from the Tahltan Nation in British Columbia to the Bunibonibee Cree Nation in Manitoba. “Our country’s northern communities are spread across vastly different landscapes with very different cultures and unique patterns of living,” Fortin explains. “Their pre-contact homes reflected this, and we all feel strongly that their future homes should as well.”
The Assembly of First Nations estimates that Indigenous communities will need to build more than 130,000 new housing units and renovate 20,000 more by 2031. Back in Fort Severn, Two Row and KPMB have been looking for federal funding for years, and Porter estimates the cost of one larger family unit to be between $200,000 and $300,000, but “it’s very hard to dislodge bureaucracy,” Blumberg says. “You can’t solve any social problems unless you have housing.”