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A Convergence of Expression: Decolonizing Healthcare and Justice Facility Design with Indigenous Communities

In the previous blog for this two-part series, we looked at how Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (QI) has informed our design approach so that the schools we build with communities in northern Canada function in unity with all of the forces that interact with the built environment.

Building on this understanding, in this blog we’ll look at how architecture can play a healing role in healthcare and justice facilities in First Nations, Metis, and Inuit (FMNI) communities.

Decolonizing Design Methodologies

Canada’s colonialist history has caused intergenerational trauma for Indigenous peoples living on these lands. Imposing a Western mindset on architecture that is meant to serve Indigenous communities in Canada risks reproducing the colonialist systems that inflicted those harms in the first place. Instead, as architects and designers we strive to support self-determination projects by working directly with communities to learn how to decolonize our approaches to design.

With this aim in mind, we collaborate with the elders and local community members early in the design process of our projects so that community members help direct how a project is ideated and built.

Placemaking in Indigenous communities requires designers to rethink the boundaries that typically delineate a building’s purpose. Different cultures have different approaches, but the community remains central. The built environment, therefore, should be welcoming and promote dignity, healing, and empowerment.

Our approach to design has evolved so that it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate whether a building is a school, hospital, or prison. They represent a convergence of expression of the community and the lands on which they are built.

Indigenous Community Healthcare and Healing Models in Canada

Healthcare delivery models in various jurisdictions need to address sometimes-conflicting priorities. In Nunavut, for example, the government manages all healthcare requirements and purchases specialized services from Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario. The government is also responsible for delivering healthcare services for the non-Indigenous minority of residents. In Saskatchewan, healthcare facilities like Fort Qu’Appelle’s All-Nations Healing Hospital are run by Tribal councils and funded through operating agreements with the regional, provincial, and federal governments.

Regardless of the operating model, rural and northern healthcare and healing facilities need to deliver effective services for diverse populations within challenging operational conditions. Local issues like the location of the facility that needs to serve a vast, sparsely populated area might confound decision-making. For renewal projects, keeping healthcare accessible during the renovation period requires special planning.

Over the decades working in northern and rural communities, we have learned that time and understanding are often required before a decision can be made.

Healthcare Delivery in Remote Areas – Qikiqtani General Hospital

In northern parts of Canada, construction periods are limited by the longer winter season. In the most remote areas, the delivery window by sea for building supplies occurs only during the summer months. Detailed planning is required at every step of the process to ensure that projects meet the needs of the communities they’ll serve and will be delivered as quickly as possible.

Qikiqtani General Hospital (QGH) is one of our recent projects that presented many of these challenges. The health facility serves 16,000 residents spread over a million square kilometres. The project included renovations to the original Baffin Regional Hospital (BRH) and upgrades to the newer QHG. One of the major challenges was that the health facility needed to continue to provide diverse healthcare services to the communities while construction was underway. This took careful planning to smoothly execute the transition of services to QGH.

The remote location required that construction materials had to be delivered via barge during the summer months. Meanwhile, during the winter months, any material that was not delivered to site would have to be flown in to ensure continuity of construction. Detailed project planning and management were required to avoid interruptions in service and to ensure that inside construction could be completed during the inclement winter months.

Parkin converted the original hospital into an ambulatory care facility that features medical and health-related offices that function to support the new hospital, including dietary and nutrition services, telehealth, rehabilitation, dental health, specialty and family practice clinics, and more.

Incorporating the artwork of local artists, a new entrance provides a vibrant welcoming image against the tundra background. Working in tandem, the two facilities provide holistic care to the area, meaning, crucially, that residents no longer have to travel to Ottawa for specialized procedures.

Correctional Healing Centres – Rankin Inlet Healing Facility

On the road to self-determination, Indigenous approaches to justice and rehabilitation offer the brightest examples of how a decolonizing architecture can provide healing for individuals and communities. Indigenous people in Canada are overrepresented in this country’s carceral system. Making up only a little over 4% of the population, people identifying as First Nations, Métis, or Inuit account for 30% of the population in custody. This statistic is striking evidence of intergenerational trauma imposed on Indigenous peoples by Canada’s colonial structures.

In stark contrast to traditional Western prison architecture that prioritizes retribution, The Rankin Inlet Healing Facility offers an example of a positive rehabilitating approach to incarceration. This men’s correctional facility was designed by Parkin in close collaboration with the community to embrace the key values of human dignity, empowerment and, most importantly, healing. The low- and medium-security facility expresses a progressive model that provides a rejuvenating atmosphere for both inmates and staff.

The design honours community and provides institutional spaces that promote gathering, learning, and healing. Natural light and connection to the land feature in the design in the same way these elements are expressed in the schools and hospitals we’ve discussed earlier in this blog series.

The exterior cladding uses materials and colours that empathize with the facility’s natural surroundings. Inside, instead of cold industrial finishes, the building features natural materials and welcoming spaces, including a special healing circle space. Residents of the facility also have free access to common areas that feature double-height ceilings and a daylit gymnasium that looks and feels like one in any community centre.

Since it was developed with and for the community, the Rankin Inlet Healing Facility represents a source of pride and healing for local residents. The purpose of the facility is not to shame and isolate its residents, but rather for the community to embrace them as a whole.

If you’re looking for an architecture service in Toronto & Ottawa, we are here to help. Get in touch with us today for a free consultation.


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