The architect responsible for the iconic Canadian Museum of History told a crowd in Toronto that urban planners need to reinvent their profession according to the concept of "love and care for all life."
Speaking at a TD Bank-sponsored event called Future Cities, Douglas Cardinal said that an Indigenous concept of stewardship of nature, rather than dominion over it, should inform the planning of urban life if we are to sustain our ecosystems as the global population approaches 10 billion by 2050.
Cities “are like a grid-like cancerous growth” that “almost act like organisms that don’t even belong on the planet,” he told National Observer in an interview Wednesday evening, before addressing a crowd of about 200 at the Evergreen Brickworks in Toronto’s Don River Valley.
“We’re behaving like spoiled children,” the soft-spoken 85-year-old said. “We’re coming in and blindly just taking everything and giving back nothing.”
Cardinal, who is of Métis, Blackfoot/Kainai, German and Algonquin heritage, blazed a trail for Indigenous architects, eventually becoming world-renowned for the sweeping lines of the Canadian Museum of History and for Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of the American Indian, as well as a string of cultural, health and educational centres across Canada.
He said that Indigenous perspectives in planning would reconnect city residents — who now constitute more than half of humanity — with the natural world and with each other, and that treaty rights could be exerted more forcefully to achieve this.
“Settlers are only here because we let them. The settlers are only here because they signed a treaty with us. And they have broken every one of them,” he said. “We are supposed to be a lawful society and the settlers have behaved like lawless thugs.”
“Before contact, the way we planned our environment, when Europe was just destroying theirs — and we had as many people here as in Europe — what we did was we took responsibility to ensure that everything we did affected seven generations,” he said.
“We had a way of planning so that things would be in balance, that every family understood their particular areas and its resources,” he said.
Disconnection creates mental problems
Cardinal drew a distinction between cities that were built and planned according to the needs of automobiles and those that work on a more human scale, such as medieval cities that have retained their character, including some that had to be rebuilt after the ravages of modern warfare.
Renowned Indigenous architect Douglas Cardinal says cities must incorporate native thinking if people are to retain their sanity, rediscover their relationship with nature and each other. #futurecities @EGBrickWorks
“Germany did that with the rebuilding of their country, and that’s why they’re at the forefront of this green movement,” he said during his speech, citing Cologne — which retained its original esthetics by enabling vehicles to move under it — and Berlin, a once-walled city that embraced a network of green urban spaces.
Cardinal warned of the negative effects of being cut off from green space and other life forms.
“If we disconnect ourselves from nature so badly we create a lot of mental health problems for ourselves,” he told the audience.
Cardinal was born in Calgary and grew up in Red Deer, Alta., where he won his first professional commission, to design St. Mary's Church, in 1964.
After completing his formal education in architecture and urban planning, Cardinal said, he went back to his elders and told them he had learned to use his head but not his heart.
“I needed to learn more about caring about what I was doing,” he explained. “I started questioning the whole course of action of so-called civilization, and Western civilization, and just seeing the havoc it was creating where I come from on the Prairies,” he said, referring to monoculture farming’s limiting of biodiversity and to chemical-filled waterways.
He said it was up to Indigenous people to teach non-Indigenous Canadians how to see themselves as part of a natural order, not rulers of it. “Our elders say we have to teach the immigrant culture to love and care for all life,” he said when asked what it means to Indigenize cities.
No model for Indigenized city
“In my lifetime I have never known an Indigenized city. There’s no model for me to reference what that could even look like,” said Riley Yesno, an Anishinaabe student and storyteller from Eabametoong First Nation, who grew up in Thunder Bay. “My elders and my ancestors might have a better idea of what that would be.”
But she nevertheless identified some core principles that aligned with Cardinal's: reciprocity, respect, honouring of relationships, genuine sustainability.
She also pointed out that hers was the first generation of Indigenous people not to attend residential schools, which if nothing else taught their students how to "navigate these awful spaces that aren’t designed for us.”
That means that “we have to destroy,” Yesno said. “There is decolonizing to be done before we can Indigenize.”
For Lindsay (Swooping Hawk) Kretschmer, the executive director of Toronto Aboriginal Social Services Association, another prerequisite for building an Indigenized city is a willingness for planners and others in power to sit at a table with Indigenous Peoples.
“You can’t Indigenize anything until you have the will of the people to enter into those conversations,” said Kretschmer, who is from the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory.
“The biggest challenge rests with decision-makers needing to know who we are, why we matter, and going back to a place of understanding those original agreements and treaties,” she said, referring specifically to the concept of two paths free to develop as they choose but which should not interfere or interrupt each other's lifestyles.