Mr. Cardinal designed this $17-million project as he does all others,
working from the people and their vision of the building. He asks all
his clients a list of 16 questions about how they feel in a building, how
they interact, what natural light should come into a room. “When people
speak,” he says, “my mind translates everything into images and pictures.”
Mr. Cardinal believes that the shape of a person’s environment in turn
shapes the person. Mr. Blaser agrees. He sees a sense of the divine in Mr.
Cardinal’s work: “It’s not just about shape and form. It’s actually got significant symbolic meaning. I find that to be a great way of understanding
the way that Douglas does buildings.
“There are layers and layers of stories, and those stories are critical
to an indigenous worldview. ... The reason you explain the truth using
stories is that stories are a way of building consensus. Instead of saying
what you think ought to happen, which leads to conflict, stories provide
multiple on-ramps for consensus.”
Even the mason in charge of the project took a special pride in it. Luc
Durette, of Scorpio Masonry in Saskatoon, oversaw the job of “wrapping”
Tyndall stone four inches thick around all the flowing curves that are a
hallmark of Mr. Cardinal’s designs. “Quite a few years ago, I said I wanted
to do a Douglas Cardinal building, and now I have done one – and one
of the fancier ones. I like to walk away from the building and look back,
and say, ‘This is what we can do, totally different from anything we have
The centre is named for Gordon Oakes, also known as Red Bear, a well-
respected Saskatchewan elder who died in 2002. Red Bear never went to
school and he and his Nekaneet band stayed on their small reserve in the
Cypress Hills, shunning mainstream society. Despite this, his influence
stretched across Western Canada. His daughter, Irene Oakes, said the
family was hesitant at first about allowing the building to bear her father’s
name, and stipulated that it would have to accommodate all the ceremonies
and dances that her father held dear. She now teaches at the university.
Ms. Oakes says her upbringing was different than that of her First
Nations peers. “The norm [for me] was the ceremonies. Cree was spoken,
teaching of our elders was practised,” she says. As a student at the University of Regina, she says her fellow First Nations students, who had lost
their traditions, were taken aback when she mentioned that her weekends
included aboriginal dancing and sweats.
Her brother Larry Oakes says their father felt education and spirituality should be like a team of horses pulling together. Too often, indigenous
people with advanced education lose contact with their traditions, he says,
while people who stay on the land are wary of educational institutions.
Mr. Cardinal, 81, was born in Alberta to parents of mixed European
and aboriginal heritage. His father, who was a forest ranger, was part
Blackfoot. His mother, a nurse, was of German and Métis ancestry. The
family of 10 was often short of funds and when his mother fell ill, he and
two of his brothers had to attend residential school.
Mr. Cardinal, now living and working in Ottawa, is perhaps best known
for designing the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, and
the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. But
he has done many smaller projects over the past 40 years, including at
least 25 primary and secondary schools. He calls his vision of education
“a drum in one hand and a computer in the other.” He adds: “I don’t think
children should be in a cells-and-bells system. Why do they warehouse
children in such crap? For 12 years of their lives they should be surrounded
by beauty and architecture, for heaven’s sake.”
Mr. Cardinal’s projects also include at least two postsecondary educa-
tion institutions, including First Nations University of Canada in Regina,
completed in 2003. Mr. Cardinal worked with elders to develop not just a
design but an overall master plan for the university.
The other is Grande Prairie Regional College in Grande Prairie, Alberta,
opened in 1974. Mr. Cardinal recounts the story of math teacher Dan Crystal,
who wanted his classroom to be round with a light above. All the walls were
chalkboards, so the students got out of their seats and did their math on their
feet. “That’s how he loved to teach, standing in the centre,” says Mr. Cardinal.
“Everybody liked that room. They called it the Crystal Palace. It was unique.”
One of Mr. Cardinal’s earliest projects was Diamond Jenness Secondary School in Hay River, Northwest Territories. Like most of Mr. Cardinal’s
projects, it has the distinctive rounded edges. But this one is clad in bright-purple metal. The school board’s budget could not accommodate stone,
and the students and community did not want a steel-grey building in such
a cold, forbidding landscape. They wanted color, and voted on purple.
One day, all the students who had attended the school came to Mr.
Cardinal’s office in Edmonton. “They thanked our whole office for the
beautiful experience,” he says.
“I think that when you put your heart and soul into what you’re doing,
the space emanates that – like the Museum of Man (a previous name for
today’s Museum of History in Ottawa). I put everything I had into that
museum. People feel it when they go into the building.”
“I think that when you put your
heart and soul into what you’re doing,
the space emanates that.”