Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Visitors to the Canadian pavilion at the international architectural exhibition in Venice, Italy will be greeted with more than an architectural display when the biennale starts later this month.
Architects Against Housing Alienation (AAHA) will represent Canada at the exhibition and kick off its campaign Not for Sale!, which proposes a radical shift in addressing the housing crisis in this country.
That campaign outlines 10 demands that focus on issues ranging from widespread unaffordability to under-housing, precarious housing, and homelessness.
“The Canadian pavilion in Venice will be our campaign office,” said David Fortin. He is owner of David T. Fortin Architect and is a citizen of the Métis Nation of Ontario. AAHA representatives will work throughout the biennale to see if the group can get people to meet its demands, said.
“Then we see it as potentially a group that will stay active…where we can provide a platform for envisioning a better future for housing in the country.”
Fortin, a founding member of AAHA, says he became “really fired-up” to address the issue of housing when empty condos in Toronto numbered 65,000, yet there were still homeless people in the city and fatalities were growing. Fortin questioned the morality of the decisions being made.
It also made him more aware of intergenerational wealth accumulation, something that came about by settlers taking the lands from Indigenous people, putting prices on those lands and building homes.
“If you're pushed out of the property game for generations, you're being held from economic prosperity while the other people are benefiting generation to generation. Every time a house is sold over the last 100 years, somebody profited, and then their kids profited and their kids profited,” said Fortin.
The AAHA was created in late 2021 and brings together architects and academics to fight against the disconnection—or housing alienation—people feel in the spaces they live and the land they are on.
“The world that we live in…it's not like it just emerged like this. We designed it a certain way and architects played a role in that and, in our opinion, what was one of the main messages we want to say is that there are other paths forward. And architects, we can redesign things to suit our needs better, so we need to be better,” said Fortin.
It is that new design, the 10 demands, that they will be pushing over the six-month long Venice biennale and three of those demands are Indigenous-specific.
Fortin has teamed up with advocates from One House Many Nations (in Big River First Nation and Opaskwayak Cree Nation), Grounded Architect, University of Manitoba, and the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan to present “First Nations Home Building Lodges.”
The lodges offer a way to return housing sovereignty to Indigenous communities.
Instead of the “commodification of houses” with prefabricated homes susceptible to mould and other issues built elsewhere and brought onto reserve, Fortin and his group are promoting a “design lodge” that suits a community’s culture, value system and needs. The homes would be manufactured in the Indigenous community or through Indigenous partnerships.
The design lodge is based on “housing as cosmology,not commodity” as proposed by University of Saskatchewan’s Dr. Alex Wilson, an activist from One House Many Nations.
Fortin explains that the concept embraces “where you are in the world, how the land relates to the stars and forest (and)…how it can tie us into our relationship with the land, our relationship with our knowledge systems.”
Wilson’s community of Opaskwayak Cree Nation is interested in manufacturing its own homes and through the campaign at the Venice biennale, Fortin wants to mobilize the concept and get funding for a pilot project in that Cree Nation.
Two other campaigns with Indigenous focuses present their own unique approaches to the issue of housing and homes.
“Land Back,” led by architect Patrick R. Stewart of Nisga’a Nation and with Skwxwu7mesh Uxwumixw Chief Ian Campbell as one of the advocates, challenges the concept of “surplus” Crown lands.
The campaign calls for this surplus land to be placed in a “co-management trust” held in the rights of the Indigenous Nation for the betterment of the people in whose territories the lands reside. Intergenerational housing would be designed and constructed.
This campaign, which is “elevating that message that Indigenous housing is never going to be resolved unless land back becomes a reality,” has the immediate goal of advocating for specific transfers of land to First Nations on the West Coast, says Fortin.
The third Indigenous campaign is focused on unsheltered women in the north. “On the Land Housing” is being undertaken by Tłı̨chǫ Dene architect Ouri Scott and activists with the goal of homes built off-grid to promote self-determination and traditional living.
The main message in this campaign, says Fortin, is “there’s no such thing as being homeless in the north…because the land is your home. And so you can be unsheltered, but you are home (and can)…go back to the land.”
The campaign is looking to boost the funding to get this project started on unceded Yellowknives Dene First Nation territory, he adds.
Having the Not for Sale! campaign operated on an international front allows AAHA to accomplish a couple of goals.
First, it draws attention to the defects of a country that has cultivated an image since the end of two world wars of being an inclusive country where everybody can “have that sense of home eventually,” says Fortin.
Secondly, an international campaign underscores Canada’s deficiency in delivering on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Canada is a signatory to that declaration which states Indigenous peoples have the right to their improvement in economic standing and the right to determine and develop priorities, both of which are expressed through housing.
“This is an opportunity for us certainly to raise the flag at least and tell the international community that Canada hasn't necessarily fulfilled that,” said Fortin.
Fortin will be in Venice for the opening May 20 and remain on site for one week. The remainder of the time will see teams of students from partner universities British Columbia and Waterloo on site helping the 10 teams move their campaigns forward.
The AAHA campaign will also be carried out in Canada with posters and events in various cities.
Fortin is grateful that the Canada Council for the Arts, commissioner of the exhibition, gave AAHA the opportunity to represent Canada internationally. He calls Canada Council’s decision “very brave” in selecting a display that shows Canada “is certainly not perfect and our housing system is right now in crisis.”
Canada Council “is pleased to enable big arts ideas that influence social change to reach new audiences,” said CEO Simon Brault in a statement.
“Their proposed Not for Sale! campaign is both unique and timely. It is certain to resonate internationally, as Canada, like much of the world, grapples with the complex and widespread challenges of housing affordability and availability.”
The Canada Council contributed $500,000 towards the exhibition production.
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Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.