Feature photo credit: Maxim Guzun.
From the air, it looks like a soaring eagle. From the ground, the Indigenous Programs Building at La Macaza Institution is an ideal melding of Indigenous cultural and rehabilitative services for incarcerated people.
In November 2022, the Indigenous Programs Building project at La Macaza institution, located in Quebec, received the Engagement and Partnerships with Indigenous Peoples Award from the Real Property Institute of Canada. From concept to construction to completion, the project was a solid collaboration between Correctional Service Canada’s (CSC) Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff, Elders, stakeholders, local communities, as well as Indigenous incarcerated individuals. It was an award-winning partnership.
“I believe that the conversations we had with the design team transmitted our values and our culture that adapted the vision for the building. We found that these exchanges were always listened to,” said Elder Robert Bourdon.
He noted that for many who are separated from their communities, the building was designed as a way to give them access to their culture.
La Macaza was originally established in 1959 as a military base. In 1973, it became Manitou College, the first Canadian post-secondary institution for Indigenous students from across Canada. Students learned Indigenous languages, traditions and self-determination and had considerable impact on the definition of a collective Indigenous identity and on the construction of First Nations leadership in Canada.
CSC took over the site in 1978. By 2014, the 55-year-old building used for services for Indigenous inmates was in need of many upgrades. CSC envisioned a new building that would incorporate Indigenous culture to help inmates on their healing journey.
Construction on the Indigenous Programs Building from the front entrance. The staff "wing" is on the left and the inmate wing is on the right. (Photo credit: Fusion Structure)
The architects designed the building in the shape of an eagle with spread wings—the bird holds significance in Indigenous culture. The building’s unique shape posed construction challenges, but the end result is incredible.
The building’s left wing is for staff and its right wing contains woodworking and sewing shops for inmates.
Residents used the woodworking shop to carve and paint three totems that are now central to the building. Two stand sentinel on either side of the building’s entrance.
Front entrance of the building with totems designed, carved, and painted by Indigenous incarcerated individuals. (Photo credit: Yomna Anani)
Close up of the totem pole outside the entrance. (Photo credit: Yomna Anani)
The third is inside, in the lobby to the ceremonial room located in the tail of the eagle-shaped structure, where all sacred events and gatherings take place.
The sewing workshop in the right wing of the building. (Photo credit Yomna Anani)
Yomna Anani took over as Architect, Design Coordinator in 2017.
“The ceremonial room, featured so much in the design as part of the healing journey, provides lots of natural light with lots of windows,” Yomna said. “It was designed as a heptagon with seven sides to reflect the seven sacred teachings or principles of Indigenous peoples. The floor, in the middle of the room, is divided into four quadrants with the colours of the medicine wheel.”
A canoe is suspended from the wooden ceiling, and a box holding sacred objects is nestled in concrete in the centre of the room.
The large room, used for ceremonies, is heptagonal (seven sided), with lots of natural light, wood and significant Indigenous elements. (Photo credit: Maxmim Guzun)
“So that this place remains, for future generations, a place firmly rooted in our culture,” said Elder Robert.
Isabelle Roy is the construction project officer for the Indigenous programs building. She has overseen the construction of 10 of the 22 buildings at La Macaza. Her knowledge of the correctional environment, maintenance needs, and security were essential.
“This was a project that gave us a freedom of design not often found in correctional settings, and where I learned a lot about the practices of Indigenous peoples and the meaning of spaces,” said Isabelle.
“The institution is one of the important locations where the Indigenous offenders of Quebec are incarcerated. A living environment, shaped according to their culture, will, for some, I am sure, contribute to a more positive social reintegration.”
“I strongly believe that we need to provide better spaces to allow people to heal through their own culture.”
She said the design and the collaborative process is setting new standards for Indigenous correctional design.
Foyer entrance to large round room with Indigenous carving and art created by Indigenous residents at La Macaza. (Photo credit: Joseph Coirrazza)
The Engagement and Partnerships with Indigenous Peoples Award acknowledges this. Elder Robert sums up what the award means to everyone involved in the project.
“It is a recognition of the work of the Indigenous and non-Indigenous team. A cooperation, a dialogue, and an open and respectful partnership.”