Indigenizing Design

Indigenous communities across Canada are contending with severe housing shortages, but government programs have failed to invite participatory solutions. But the One House Many Nations initiative is offering a community-led alternative: small home designs that prioritize traditional wisdom and sustainability.

Text—Amber Bernard
Photos—Carey Shaw

For most, home is synonymous with refuge, but many Indigenous communities in Canada face a different reality. Insufficient housing leaves families vulnerable, particularly Indigenous youth. People are often left with no choice but to live in homes that are too small and overcrowded, or unsuitable in other ways. One in five Indigenous people live in homes that need major repairs, according to a census report by Statistics Canada in 2016.

Efforts by the federal government to solve these problems have failed to take into account the unique needs of individual communities across different Indigenous nations. Government interventions habitually exclude community input from the design and build process, says Dr. Alex Wilson, the academic director of the Aboriginal Education Research Centre at the University of Saskatchewan and a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation.

Dr. Wilson is taking steps to fix this imbalance. She’s an organizer with the Indigenous revolutionary movement Idle No More, which seeks to address the housing crisis through a customized approach.

“We’ve been able to house ourselves for thousands of years, so let’s get back to that and figure out how that looks in a modern context,” Dr. Wilson says.


Wilson is spearheading Idle No More’s housing project, called One House Many Nations, which seeks community-based solutions to homelessness. Community members lead the way with Indigenous wisdom about the pillars of sustainability and culture, focusing especially on Indigenous youth.

“We are fully aware the housing crisis is not a building problem, it’s a systems problem,” Wilson said in a phone interview, referring to the consequences of what she calls “colonial economics,” whereby Indigenous communities are treated as afterthoughts. The historical and present-day effects of colonization continue to interfere with the self-determination of Indigenous communities and obstruct their connection to the land. Idle No More works against systems of oppression and promotes Indigenous resurgence. Addressing housing “will unlock some of the bigger issues like education, health, social services,” Wilson argues. With this in mind, One House Many Nations not only works with community members but allows them to lead the process.

In 2019 One House Many Nations created the Muskrat Hut, an award-winning utility trailer that was made to assist those living closely with the land. The name was given to honour the animal’s natural expertise in hydrological engineering and because it is a highly regarded symbol in Cree worldviews.

“It was named Muskrat Hut because it’s a part of our cosmology,” Wilson explains. “Muskrats played a really important role in the past in terms of food but also in fur trade and spirituality.”


As well as enabling those who wish to go out onto the land for long periods, the Muskrat Hut was designed to minimize human impact on the surrounding nature and to allow Indigenous peoples to live as extensions of their environments, as their ancestors did before them.

The Muskrat Hut also weaves in traditional elements; for example, its roof slopes at a seven-degree angle. Cat Sallese, an interior design student at the University of Saskatchewan working under Dr. Wilson’s leadership, explains: “The number seven isn’t just a random number. It represents the seven sacred directions.”  (The seven sacred directions are an important aspect of many Indigenous worldviews and comprise north, south, west, east, above, below, and centre of the individual.) Sallese considers herself a settler Canadian who is deeply committed to amplifying Indigenous movements.

Indigenous paradigms for design

One House Many Nations is presently working to expand the original Muskrat Hut project to make more small homes based on Indigenous philosophies of sustainability and land protection. A five-year grant they received from the social innovation lab Making the Shift is enabling Dr. Wilson and her team to work with more communities to create better living solutions for Indigenous youth. “We’re trying to do design from an Indigenous paradigm,” says Dr. Wilson. The grant will see homes built in Opaskwayak Cree Nation, Big River First Nation, Yellowknife, and Nutana Collegiate in Saskatoon.

Nutana Collegiate is the site of the first small home being built for the Making the Shift research grant. While the project is still under construction and has yet to be given its own name, the new home is expected to be transported to Big River First Nation, where it will receive its final interior design touches from the community before housing one of their own youth. 

Rather than disperse the same model everywhere, One House Many Nations wants individual communities to guide the projects from start to end.

“Each nation has their own language, their own practices, their own being that is completely ingrained and influenced by the land that they’re on,” explains Reanna Merasty, an architecture research student under the Making the Shift grant.


Merasty, who is originally from Barren Lands First Nation, felt inspired to join Dr. Alex Wilson’s team when she saw the unique success of Muskrat Hut.

The One House Many Nations approach to community-led Indigenous design represents the start of something both revolutionary and practical, and it’s what gets Wilson up in the morning. “I find myself spending all of my free time dedicated to this project,” she says. She hopes she can expand the work into a sustainable multi-generational village where there are shared resources, and where Indigenous people can live harmoniously with their environments once again.

Amber Bernard (she/her) is Mi’kmaw (We’koqma’q First Nation) from the unceded territory of Mi’kma’ki or more commonly known as the Atlantic provinces. She is a journalist and communications professional who has worked with various outlets across Canada.

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