This new health complex is tailored to the cultural needs of indigenous people and is sustainably embedded in the Arctic environment. Architects Lola Sheppard and Mason White collaborated with the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation (AIWF) to envision a centre that will cater to the needs of 22,000 people from seven indigenous groups living in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
The new facility in Yellowknife, capital of this vast 1.1 million square kilometre province, will be located close to Stanton Territorial Hospital that opened in 2019. Following unsuccessful attempts by the local Council of Elders to open a space devoted to indigenous wellness within the new hospital, the AIWF commissioned the health centre to provide a culturally sensitive healing alternative for Inuit, Métis, and First Nation peoples.
An integrative approach to healthcare
The Arctic Indigenous Wellness Centre (AIWC) aligns healthcare with the indigenous worldview where physical and mental healing are interrelated, and the health of the individual depends on the health of the community. To that end, the centre is designed as a place where cultural and spiritual practices are possible. According to Lola Sheppard (pictured), founder of the Toronto-based architecture firm Lateral Office and co-author of the project, wellness for indigenous people is first and foremost about being connected to nature and to community.
While indigenous Canadians do not reject modern medicine, they view wellness as being as much about language and emotional healing as it is about physical healing. In a context where the effects of historical trauma can still be felt, and where indigenous Canadians are more likely than others to suffer from depression, cancer, addiction, or diabetes, providing meaningful healthcare is paramount.
A culturally coherent construction
To enable a holistic approach to be offered, the AIWC was designed through a nine-month collaborative process between the architects and their client, the AIWF – a non-profit organization founded by indigenous elders. Through a series of workshops enabling all participants to share their input, the wellness centre was conceived as gathering camp, with smaller buildings embedded within a larger building, itself seen as an integral part of the wider landscape. Three distinct spaces within the building address different needs and traditions: a large circular building offers space for ceremonies and celebrations, a wellness wing provides facilities for individual and group therapy, while a third section hosts spaces to share knowledge and foster cultural resilience through storytelling and arts and crafts. Traditional healing practices such as smudging – the burning of sacred herbs – that are not possible within conventional healthcare will be enabled on site. The outdoor spaces surrounding the centre offer extensive areas for gathering around fires and provide a vital connection to nature thanks to the proximity of the pine forest and the shores of Frame Lake.
A challenging ecological design
The centre is designed with a minimal ecological footprint and to use local construction materials such as wood and stone. In a climate as harsh as Northern Canada, environmentally friendly building practices can become more challenging. The conditions in the region can be extreme: severe winters, strong northerly winds, drifting snow, and intense summer sun all raise questions of thermal regulation. The architects have responded to these constraints by paying particular attention to the shape of the building, which is designed to direct the wind and snow over it, as well as to the orientation of the premises, strategically made to face the lake and “turn its back” to the northerly winds and drifting snow. Passive heating measures, including varying wall thickness, façade glazing and cantilevered roofs, are incorporated to minimize energy consumption.
The Council of Elders also requested that the layer of Precambrian igneous rock present throughout most of Canada and known as the Canadian Shield not be blasted, because of its sacred status, and the wellness centre is consequently designed to sit directly on top of the Canadian Shield. This will allow some areas of exposed rock within the building to radiate geothermal heat into the facility in winter, while ensuring that the premises remain well aligned with traditional values, as they are respectful of the local environment.