Consider the swimming pool as a metaphor for settler knowledge

Text from this week’s article by Alexandra Pereira-Edwards, Misca Birklein-Lagassé, and Zaven Titizian on the swimming pools of Nunavut. Drawing of The Pool in Bovisa, 1986 © Estate of John Hejduk DR1988:0436:038

Toward Unsettling

Alexandra Pereira-Edwards, Misca Birklein-Lagassé, and Zaven Titizian on the Swimming Pools of Nunavut

The summer of 2020 marked the beginning of In the Postcolony, a three-year thematic series facilitated through the Masters Students Program. The series aims to examine how architecture and urbanism continue to respond to the long echoes of colonial practices of spatial dispossession. “The Swimming Pools of Nunavut” is the first instalment of the series and probes the social, political, and environmental impacts of creating volumes of warm water in cold climates.

With a view to making this project and its collected resources accessible in the short and long term, this article and its accompanying syllabus and index will be translated into Inuktitut. Given the project’s open-ended and collaborative nature, we will periodically update it with essential translations.

“The Swimming Pools of Nunavut” considers the indoor swimming pool as both a subject of interest and a metaphorical space to confront the colonial implications of architectural thought. The pool’s encapsulated wetness speaks to architecture’s tendency to delimit boundaries; it presents itself as finite, contained, and separate from endless, immeasurable seas and murky unknowns. To consider the swimming pool as a metaphor for settler knowledge is to uncover the biases inherent in researching from a distance. With a recognition of the numerous sources of power that shape Nunavut communities through the focused lens of the swimming pool, this project critically assesses the discipline of architecture in order to expose the many ways that these power relations are furthered through inherently colonial approaches in academia.

As part of Inuit Nunangat and one of the three territories that make up what has been claimed as Canada’s North, Nunavut has undergone significant transformation through the colonial expansion of built infrastructure and the dispossession of Inuit. In 2010, there were nine swimming pools across the territory’s twenty-five communities, but only a few were still operating as aquatic facilities and none were operational year-round.1 In the ten years that have followed, more pools have closed while others have opened, signalling both their precarity and their appeal. These facilities often serve as prominent community gathering spaces in their operational months and promote lessons of water safety in the hopes of reducing the high drowning rates in the territory.2 Even after they can no longer serve their intended purpose, the pools have the potential to encompass radical post-use programming, exemplified by the use of Igloolik’s defunct pool as a music venue and a practice space for the circus troupe Artcirq.3

Given the complex and expensive logistics of keeping a swimming pool operational in an arctic climate, it has become common for these facilities to close before their projected life span. Premature closures are often the result of thawing permafrost and the physical shifts that it causes, as was the case with the closure of the community pool in Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay), deemed structurally unsafe mid-way through its 2019 operating season.4 In addition to structural breakdowns, swimming pools have high operating costs and require large volumes of potable water that cannot always be sustained when considered within a greater network of resource and funding priorities.


  1. Jane George, “Demand Rises Across Nunavut for Pools, Ice Equipment,” Nunatsiaq News, March 28, 2010. 

  2. Canadian Red Cross. “Report: Water-Related Fatality Trends Across Canada 1991 to 2013.” (June 2016), 1. 

  3. John Thompson, “The International Acclaim is Great, but Igloolik’s Clown Princes are Desperate for Cash,” Nunatsiaq News, November 22, 2007.  

  4. Kate Kyle, “Cambridge Bay Swimmers Left High and Dry After Community Pool Forced to Close,” CBC, July 31, 2019.  

Google Street View, Swimming Pool, Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay), 2012.

The swimming pools of Nunavut are, in theory, ideal sites for architectural investigation: the logistical limitations of northern construction present a tangible point of departure, while the typology of the pool itself is an assemblage of depths, lines, and measurements that resonate with architectural understandings. However, beyond tectonics, there are innumerable cultural and logistical complexities that impact the integration, maintenance, and use of these infrastructures—complexities that must be deeply understood, felt, and honoured if one wishes to draw any sort of conclusion about the infrastructure’s validity or offer emancipatory proposals. The swimming pools inherently embody a southern ideal of recreation and leisure, as traditional ways of knowing that have sustained Inuit life since well before colonization are often cast aside in favour of pool-based swimming lessons. These lessons are taught away from natural waters and typically by southern lifeguards whose embodied knowledge is disjointed from Inuit understandings of the land and the traditional safety measures used to prevent drowning.1 Much like the disjuncture between regulated swimming lessons and Traditional Knowledge, to impose binary understandings of these spaces from a settler perspective would further perpetuate colonial ideals. The intricacies of studying the pools from a distance present a set of challenges that cannot be overcome without a critical recalibration of, and reflection on, architectural approaches.

In presenting this project, we want to make clear that we are not Inuit, nor have we visited Nunavut. As graduate students of architecture in southern Canada, we have been searching for ways to acknowledge our position as settlers and researchers while contemplating a context we remain in allyship with but cannot experience. Canada’s history of colonial violence, its perpetuation, and its lasting echoes have informed our approach; through studying, questioning, and conversing, it has become clear that to draw conclusions about the presence of swimming pools in Nunavut would be to participate in existing practices that privilege settler knowledge. Instead, our aim is to listen to the deep reverberations of settler colonialism and identify how they continually shape, and are shaped by, architectures and infrastructures.

By exploring a topic that demands forms of settler accountability, our focus with the project shifted from attempting to make any substantive claims about the social, environmental, or logistical consequences of the pools, to the methods and lenses used to analyze them. We acknowledge that our initial approach and timeline for this project did not allow for prolonged community engagement and we intentionally proposed a new framework to investigate swimming pools in Nunavut. It consists of the Toward Unsettling syllabus and supplementary index of short writings—both interventions are intended to expand through an open call for submissions from students, designers, activists, and historians. While many of the initial materials within the syllabus and index locate themselves across Inuit Nunangat, submissions may expand beyond this scope. Indigenous voices will be prioritized, as the presence of Indigenous perspectives within this work is central to its existence. While we recognize that this work will never be complete, we encourage submissions to make the project as inclusive, expansive, and critical as it can be. As a crucial infrastructure of education, a syllabus can promote practices with a renewed sense of responsibility. Thus, through the Toward Unsettling syllabus project, this infrastructure is mobilized to be open access, collaborative, and constantly growing.


  1. Audrey R. Giles, Heather Castleden, and Ava C. Baker, “’We Listen to Our Elders. You live longer That Way’: Examining Aquatic Risk Communication and Water Safety Practices in Canada’s North,” Health & Place 16 (2009): 6. 


The Toward Unsettling syllabus provides a platform to engage in retrospection and revision of architectural pedagogy, scholarship, and practice. As the first in the three-part series In the Postcolony, we see the project as the start of a conversation that will take place over the following years through different voices, perspectives, and approaches. The project has the potential to collect years of content directed at long-term, meaningful change across various geographic and time scales, with a primary focus on how we conduct and conceive of architectural research in response to the effects of spatial dispossession brought about by colonialism.

We posit this project as the beginning of an expansive conversation about ethical engagement, introspection, and collaboration in the built environment.

This project was pursued under the guidance of Rafico Ruiz and in virtual conversation with invited guests. The authors would like to extend their thanks to Nicole Luke, Lola Sheppard, Mason White, Darin Barney, Audrey Giles, Ana María León, Lisa Landrum, Geronimo Inutiq, Jocelyn Piirainen, Taqralik Partridge, and the CCA staff. They would also like to thank the Indigenous Design and Planning Student Association (IDPSA), the Grierson research group, and Kaitlin Littlechild for their thoughtful feedback.

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