Settler Colonialism, Residential Schools, and Architectural History

On October 24, 2019, Active History commenced a series on education “after” residential schools with an article written by Clinton Debogorski, Magdalena Milosz, Martha Walls and Karen Bridget Murray. The series is open-ended. Active History welcomes additional contributions on related themes.

By Magdalena Milosz

I remind

Until I fall.

  • Rita Joe, “Hated Structure”[1]

Throughout my undergraduate education in architecture, I was unaware that the beautiful river outside our light-filled studios wound its way through stolen lands. From its headwaters roughly forty kilometres south of Georgian Bay, the Grand River flows past the University of Waterloo’s architecture school in Cambridge, Ontario, skirting the edge of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory before eventually reaching Lake Erie. In 1784, land abutting the river’s entire length, “six miles deep from each side,”[2] was set aside for the Six Nations through the Haldimand Treaty. By 1851, a succession of sales, leases, and illegal occupations by waves of incoming settlers had reduced this territory to five per cent of its original 950,000 acres – roughly its size today.[3]

The river also courses through Brantford – named after Kanyen’kehà:ka leader Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea) – where the longest-running residential school in Canada still stands. The federal government and Anglican Church took children to the Mohawk Institute from the nearby Six Nations, and other First Nations as far away as Quebec, until it closed in 1969. While my classmates and I drew old stone houses and designed pavilions for a riverfront park, this history remained opaque to us. We spent six hours a week in our first term learning about the Holocaust from one of the world’s foremost experts on Auschwitz, even as a powerfully tangible reminder of Canada’s own genocidal history stood, silently, a half-hour away. I’d visited Auschwitz, or Oswiecim, as it’s known in Polish, the summer before starting university. It wouldn’t be until graduate school that I would walk through the doors of the Mohawk Institute.

When I expressed interest in studying how architecture conveyed historical narratives, a professor suggested I look at residential schools. That is how I learned about this history – in my first term as a master’s student. I remember many things coalescing in the years that followed – my immigrant, not-quite-Canadian Canadian identity hyphenating with a settler identity; my view of Canada as the land of peacekeepers and the destination of the Underground Railroad, benevolent and polite, slipping away. In its place: a complicated history of Indigenous dispossession, settler white supremacy and violence, an ambivalent and sometimes hypocritical multiculturalism.

After a few digressions, I returned to residential schools as the subject of my thesis. I was struck by Paulette Regan’s statement that “the schools, some of which are still standing, remain comfortably invisible to Canadians, as do the former inhabitants themselves.”[4] I wanted to know what role architecture had played in the development of the residential school system, and how these structures continued to exist, sometimes disconnected from their history, in the twenty-first century.

I audited a class with a Mohawk professor from Six Nations, who taught us (mainly non-Indigenous students) about Indigenous architecture, how colonialism impacted and continues to affect Indigenous Peoples on Turtle Island, and his own family’s history with residential schools. He took us to the river, that same river marked by dispossession and settler ignorance, and taught us about the Condolence Ceremony and the Thanksgiving Address. His teachings were an answer to a question I’d long had, but didn’t know how to articulate. Why was the architectural history we learned so often the history of someplace else?

When I first visited the former Mohawk Institute, my attention was narrowly focused on the materiality of the place, the physical structure that had shaped the experiences of so many children. The building functioned as a register of the time they had spent there, bearing burn marks from thwarted fires and graffiti on its walls. Being there gave me a different sense of understanding from that gleaned through the crucial testimonies of survivors, or anything I could read in the archives.

Trying to make sense of this and other experiences at former residential school sites – I ended up visiting ten in Ontario and Manitoba – I was drawn to political questions. Sarah de Leeuw’s conception of residential schools as “intimate sites nested within Canadian colonial and nation-building agendas”[5] was instrumental to my thinking about architecture as an intermediary between large-scale settler-colonial practices, like surveying and settlement, and the bodies of Indigenous and settler subjects.

Architectural evidence is part of a wider archive of the residential school system dating to at least 1879. Although schools run by religious missionaries had existed earlier, that was the year Nicholas Flood Davin recommended to John A. Macdonald that Canada adopt the American system of boarding schools as an assimilation strategy targeting Indigenous Peoples and, specifically, children. In his report, Davin included “a design for one of the schools of the cheapest kind,”[6] although this drawing appears not to have survived along with the text. Still, it points to architecture’s involvement and culpability in the system’s very inception.

The archive of work by architects in the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) charts the federal government’s increasing oversight of residential schools in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including the design and construction of new school buildings. By 1885, the DIA had organized a Technical Branch, making it one of only a few Canadian government departments to have its own construction agency.[7] Underscoring the importance of architecture to the department’s aims of assimilation was the signature of the now-notorious Duncan Campbell Scott, which appeared on drawings of residential schools during his tenure as Deputy Superintendent of the DIA from 1913 to 1932.

Architectural drawings for residential schools and other projects were often signed by Duncan Campbell Scott during his tenure as Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932. (R.G. Orr, architect, “Plan of Alterations and Additions to Mohawk Institute, Brantford, Ont.,” 1922, Library and Archives Canada, RG22M 912016, item numbers 591-599).

The disconnections between designs and built forms of residential schools are potentially revealing, discernible in differences among plans, survivor testimonies, and on-site observations.[8] For instance, the main edifice of the Mohawk Institute (known to survivors as the “mush hole” due to its unappetizing food) was built in 1904 according to a design by the school’s principal. In 1922, under the direction of the DIA’s Chief Architect, Roland Guerney Orr, plans were made for a new, two-storey back wing (see above). The basement of the proposed addition would contain the children’s dining room, kitchen, laundry, and boiler room, while the ground floor would include an assembly hall and chapel. It appears that the planned ground-floor assembly hall and chapel, with their pitched roof, were never constructed, perhaps because the nearby Mohawk Chapel provided equivalent spaces. Importantly, the initial plan aligned with those of most other schools built under Orr’s watch. This similarity, if not total uniformity, in residential school design across the country can be read in relation to what Karen Murray calls the “pan-territorial ideal.”[9] This ideal hinged on a national imaginary of Canada as a modern state governing a homogeneous people by consent from coast to coast to coast.

Residential school projects recognized with the Department of Public Works’ Design Awards for Architecture. Left: St. Mary’s Residential School, Mission, BC, designed by Gardiner & Thornton and completed in 1965; right: Assiniboia Residential School gymnasium and chapel, Winnipeg, MB, designed by the Department of Public Works and completed in 1969. (“Department of Public Works Design Awards for Architecture,” Journal RAIC/L’IRAC 42, no. 9 (September 1965): 69; “DPW Awards of Excellence,” Architecture Canada 46, no. 2 (February 1969): 5).

New residential schools continued to be constructed into the 1950s and 1960s, even as post-WWII government policy favoured “integration” of Indigenous children into settler schools. These modernist buildings, some of which won design awards from the federal government, belie the notion that residential schools belong to a distant past. They underscore the long-standing, but largely unacknowledged, involvement of the architectural profession in this system. They also bring up questions about how certain visual and spatial codes, in this case architectural modernism, can serve to mask ongoing colonial violence and genocide – or defer its questioning.

As art historian Geoffrey Carr points out, architects employed by the DIA produced a wide variety of designs aside from residential schools, bringing a settler-colonial “architectural presence to bear on most aspects of Indigenous life.”[10] After I finished my master’s thesis, I worked in architectural practice for a year and a half, then decided to pursue this understudied area of architectural history as my doctoral research at McGill University. Last winter, as a teaching assistant for an undergraduate architectural history course on post-WWII North America, the professor gave me the opportunity to present a guest lecture to the class on this work. I thought back to my own experience as a first-year architecture student, the impact of learning about the Holocaust, and what I wish I’d known then about settler colonialism, genocide, and Indigenous histories. I had assumed most university students today would be familiar with residential schools, four years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission tabled its final report. Yet perhaps only half of the fifty or so students in the class raised their hands when I asked who knew about them. Having known this beforehand, I might have spent more time on this history; however, I also wanted to introduce students to Indigenous architecture, and especially the many recent contributions by Indigenous scholars in this field.[11] With this second second part of the lecture, I tried to address what Rachael Yacaa?al George calls “a danger in allowing colonialism to become the only narrative of Indigenous lives.”[12]

Balancing these two aspects is crucial, particularly for non-Indigenous scholars teaching about Indigenous histories in the settler-colonial academy. This is especially true when addressing the fact that settler colonialism, as a structure, is premised on the elimination of Indigenous Peoples. This bare fact cannot erase Indigenous Peoples’ continuing existence as distinct nations, and their resistance and refusal of the multidimensional colonial order – including those expressed through and beyond dominant architectural narratives. As J. Kehaulani Kauanui writes, “any meaningful engagement with theories of settler colonialism…necessarily needs to tend to the question of indigeneity. Settler Colonial Studies does not, should not, and cannot replace Indigenous Studies.”[13]

Undergraduate architecture education centres around the design studio, in which students typically spend two full days a week, while the number of history courses varies widely. Through an initiative called Treaty Lands + Global Stories, students at the University of Waterloo examined the curricula examined the curricula of the twelve architecture schools in Canada and found that eleven of them lack any core courses on Indigenous issues.[14] Nisga’a architect and scholar Patrick Stewart writes that “indigenous culture is missing from the curricula of architecture schools in this country,” and calls for teaching Indigenous architecture alongside other histories.[15] The so-called canon taught in most architecture school history courses continues to be overwhelmingly Eurocentric and male – even if architectural history, in its development as a discipline distinct from the instrumental demands of architectural education, has long looked beyond these horizons.

These issues are wrapped up in larger problems of under representation of Indigenous Peoples and people of colour in faculty and student bodies, an education system rooted in colonialist histories, and architectural disciplines – both professional and academic – that have yet to confront the specificity of their settler coloniality on this continent and others. As Kevin O’Brien writes in the Australian context, “the absence of Aboriginal voices contributing to the architectural debate is what has really created the vacuum that non-aboriginal academics and practitioners have begun to colonise in their image.”[16] The larger question, then, is not only the content taught but who teaches it, and what worldviews get passed on in the process.

The few remaining residential school sites in Canada are significant for the stories they tell. Although many buildings no longer exist and some communities have chosen demolition, there is also an impetus towards preservation and commemoration. Several sites that were for decades used for other purposes are now being reimagined as “Indigenous sites of conscience.” After its closure, the Mohawk Institute was re-purposed as the Indigenous-run Woodland Cultural Centre in 1972. It is currently being renovated as a residential school museum through a campaign called Save the Evidence. Other commemoration initiatives have been taking place at Long Plain First Nation in Manitoba and Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, which own the former Portage la Prairie and Shingwauk Residential Schools, respectively.

For architecture students, it is important to learn about the profession’s involvement in the residential school system, but these built environments serve as powerful reminders for everyone. Architecture materializes and reproduces power relations, and examining residential schools through plans, photographs, site visits and survivors’ stories can make these histories tangible. Today, as I work in unceded Kanien’kehá:ka and Algonquin Anishnaabeg territories (Montreal and Ottawa), I am learning more about architecture’s broader implications in the encounter between the settler-colonial state and Indigenous Peoples. Although highly visible to Indigenous communities, the role of architects in this context has remained invisible to architectural history for far too long.

Magdalena Milosz is a doctoral candidate at the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture at McGill University.

Editors Note: Several names in this post, including the author’s, have been spelled incorrectly because their diacritics are not supported by WordPress. We sincerely apologize for our inability to render them correctly.

[1] Rita Joe, Song of Eskasoni: More Poems of Rita Joe (Charlottetown, PEI: Ragweed Press, 1988), 75.

[2] Charles M. Johnston, ed., The Valley of the Six Nations: A Collection of Documents on the Indian Lands of the Grand River (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1964), 51.

[3] Rick Monture, We Share Our Matters = Teionkwakhashion Tsi Niionkwariho:ten: Two Centuries of Writing and Resistance at Six Nations of the Grand River (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2014), 60.

[4] Paulette Regan, Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010), 6,

[5] Sarah de Leeuw, “Intimate Colonialisms: The Material and Experienced Places of British Columbia’s Residential Schools,” The Canadian Geographer 51, no. 3 (2007): 339.

[6] Nicholas Flood Davin, Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds (Ottawa, 1879), 2,

[7] Douglas Owram, Building for Canadians: A History of the Department of Public Works, 1840-1960 (Ottawa: Public Relations and Information Services, Public Works Canada, 1979), 245–46; Janet Wright, Crown Assets: The Architecture of the Department of Public Works, 1867-1967 (Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 1, 59–61.

[8] Geoffrey Paul Carr, “‘House of No Spirit’: An Architectural History of the Indian Residential School in British Columbia” (PhD diss., University of British Columbia, 2011), 96.

[9] Karen Bridget Murray, “The Violence Within: Canadian Modern Statehood and the Pan-Territorial Residential School System Ideal,” Canadian Journal of Political Science/Revue Canadienne de Science Politique, May 4, 2017.

[10] Carr, “‘House of No Spirit,’” 45–46.

[11] See two edited collections from 2018: Rebecca Kiddle, luugigyoo patrick stewart, and Kevin O’Brien, eds., Our Voices: Indigeneity and Architecture ([Novato, California]: ORO Editions, 2018); Elizabeth Grant et al., eds., The Handbook of Contemporary Indigenous Architecture (Singapore: Springer, 2018).

[12] Rachael Yacaa?al George, “Inclusion Is Just the Canadian Word for Assimilation: Self-Determination and the Reconciliation Paradigm in Canada,” in Surviving Canada: Indigenous Peoples Celebrate 150 Years of Betrayal, ed. Kiera L. Ladner and Myra J. Tait (Winnipeg: ARP Books, 2017), 54.

[13] J. Kehaulani Kauanui, “‘A Structure, Not an Event’: Settler Colonialism and Enduring Indigeneity,” Lateral 5, no. 1 (2016),

[14] The McEwen School of Architecture at Laurentian University offers a tricultural program addressing Anglophone, Francophone, and Indigenous communities. Samuel Ganton, Amina Lalor, and Paniz Moayeri, “Treaty Lands, Global Stories: Designing an Inclusive Curriculum,” Journal of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada / Le Journal de La société pour l’étude de l’architecture Au Canada 43, no. 2 (2018): 20,

[15] Patrick Robert Reid Stewart, “Indigenous Architecture through Indigenous Knowledge: Dim sagalts’apkw nisim [Together We Will Build a Village]” (University of British Columbia, 2015), 52, 108,

[16] Kevin O’Brien, “Architecture and Consent,” in Our Voices: Indigeneity and Architecture, ed. Rebecca Kiddle, luugigyoo patrick stewart, and Kevin O’Brien ([Novato, California]: ORO Editions, 2018), 29.

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