Keekagin, the thing you look for to steer when you are lost

Leslie Beedell, Sarah Chin, and Madeleine Reinhart explore healing and building at Barriere Lake

For the third and final installment of In the Postcolony, a three-year thematic series facilitated through the CCA Master’s Students Program, students undertook a collaborative research project with community members of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake First Nation and Shiri Pasternak, a longtime ally of Barriere Lake and a faculty member in Criminology at Toronto Metropolitan University. The research responds to the community’s current initiative to build a multipurpose healing centre on their territory. The community lives on a fifty-nine-acre reserve roughly three hours north of Ottawa, in what is now known as the Outaouais region of Quebec, though their traditional territories extend for seventeen thousand square kilometres.

Students of the 2022 cohort engaged in background research about the Barriere Lake community, traditional land-based healing practices, and outreach including site visits to several established healing centres. The project culminated with a visit to the site of Barriere Lake’s future healing centre and a meeting with community members involved in its construction and programming. During their visit, the students collected footage for a short film intended to document the current state of the healing centre and the conditions of the land on which it will exist. The film resides within an open-access Google Drive created to archive research about the healing centre project and to help structure the community’s future funding applications.

This project engages with the Toward Unsettling Syllabus, an open and collaborative platform to initiate retrospection regarding architectural pedagogy. The short film created this summer for the Barriere Lake community will supplement the “To Translate” lens within the open-access syllabus. While the “To Translate” lens uncovers ways that the built environment transports histories, knowledge, and matter to re-examine their linear historical narratives, the Multipurpose Healing Centre at Barriere Lake serves to transport knowledge pertaining to land-based healing along an infrastructure that has recently commenced construction. The displacement of infrastructure, people, and programs related to education and land-based healing to a site off-reserve raises questions of Indigenous jurisdiction and rights to traditional ceremony as an extension of the Canadian carceral system.

With a view to making this research accessible in the short and long term, this article and the associated short film will be translated into Anishnaabemowin.

The Indigenous healing lodge can be considered as an architecture asserting claims of jurisdiction over domains of justice, health, education, and the land itself. Healing lodges exist as both designed spaces and as a means to meet the programmatic and spiritual needs of Indigenous offenders as they transition back onto their land. The concept of the healing lodge was introduced in 1990 by the Native Women’s Association of Canada as an extension of the Canadian justice system, prompted by Indigenous over-incarceration and by the absence of Indigenous programming and access to ceremonial practice in prisons. The inception of healing lodges into the federal correctional system represented a step toward recognizing Indigenous law—legal forms of understanding territory and customs which existed long before the arrival of settlers to Canada. Healing lodges were also meant to foster a stronger relationship between Correctional Service Canada (CSC) and Indigenous communities who would provide input on the design of the facilities and help to deliver programs and teachings to Indigenous offenders. Though CSC ultimately retains control over the design and management of their facilities, the healing lodge nonetheless acts as a nexus for expanded Indigenous sovereignty over land and cultural traditions.

Eight of ten CSC-affiliated healing lodges are on lands governed by the Numbered Treaties, three of which exist within reserves established by those treaties.1 Kwìkwèxwelhp Healing Village in British Columbia is situated on land undergoing active treaty negotiations while Pê Sâkâstêw Centre is situated on land leased by CSC from Samson Cree First Nation.2 The overlapping modes of governance enacted within the ten existing CSC-accredited healing lodges reveals the competing layers of jurisdiction they embody. To manage a healing lodge outside of the CSC accreditation process is to allow Indigenous communities to retain their own governance structures, long-term relationships between Elders and residents, as well as community partnerships. The Algonquins of Barriere Lake have a long history of independent governance, having opposed the Canadian government’s Comprehensive Land Claims Policy in favour of the Trilateral Agreement, a policy instituting co-management of the land without extinguishing Indigenous rights to the territory.3 The healing centre at Barriere Lake therefore positions itself as external to Canadian state governance and CSC affiliation, being self-built, managed, and maintained to establish an affirmative future for their community and land.


  1. Government of Canada, Indigenous and Northern Affairs, The Numbered Treaties (1871-1921), February 15, 2013, https://rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1360948213124/1544620003549

  2. Government of British Columbia, “Stó:Lō Xwexwilmexw, B.C., Canada Move Forward on Major Treaty Innovations,” news release, October 13, 2018, https://archive.news.gov.bc.ca/releases/news_releases_2017-2021/2018IRR0068-001989.htm; Correctional Service of Canada, “Institutional Profiles: Prairie Region: Pê Sâkâstêw Centre,” February 11, 2013, https://www.csc-scc.gc.ca/institutions/001002-4008-en.shtml

  3. Shiri Pasternak, Grounded Authority: The Algonquins of Barriere Lake Against the State (Minneapolis, United States: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 270. 

Barriere Lake Multipurpose Healing Centre Project

Keekagin is a multipurpose, multi-sited healing centre in the process of being built to support the Mitchikanibikok Inik/Algonquins of Barriere Lake First Nation. Keekagin, which translates from Anishnaabemowin as support, or more precisely as “the thing you look for to steer when you are lost,” will support community members recently released from prison to transition back onto the land or await placement in long-term treatment centres while providing land-based education to youth and families. Compounding the mental health crises taking place within the community is the lack of funding available to supply basic infrastructure for the healing centre.

The first site for the healing centre is subject to socio-spatial and jurisdictional tensions between the Canadian State and Anishinaabe ways of life. Built on the unceded family territory of Michen and Maggie Wawatie on an island outside of the Rapid Lake reserve, the siting of the healing centre rejects the alienation imposed on the Barriere Lake community caused by ongoing processes of colonial dispossession, encroachment, and resource extraction. The choice to place the site off-reserve is fundamental for the community to extend their claims to territorial sovereignty while providing a space for healing that is free of distractions from everyday life on the reserve.

Last summer, one of the two cabins that had been built on the site burned to the ground. This setback delayed the construction process and has hindered further funding support for the project. This summer, following Elder Maggie Wawatie’s guidance, the site was cleared of burnt wood and brush, and platforms were levelled and built in a radial arrangement surrounding the remaining cabin. We had the opportunity to visit the Barriere Lake community in August and arrived in time to see the first platform for the prospector tents being constructed on the site. The community currently has plans to erect five prospector tents to house residents of the healing centre and to complete construction on the existing cabin for use as a communal kitchen as a first step toward providing shelter for residents of the healing centre. Future plans include building a sweat lodge and a teepee for one-on-one healing sessions, clearing a walking path through the forest, and rebuilding the second cabin to host communal workshops and health services.

Keekagin
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Beyond the built form of the healing centre, the land on which it is situated and the construction process itself embody aspects of the healing process. During our visit, Kelley Bird-Naytowhow of the Cree First Nation, an Indigenous social worker and partner of a Barriere Lake community member, described how the current state of the healing centre and the slow process of its becoming acts as an analogy for healing:

“As you walked through the bush you were patient where you walked, and that’s how we see healing. How do we prepare someone for healing? This raw stage right now is a perfect beginning of someone’s healing. Someone who hasn’t worked on themselves, this is what it would look like. Logs over here chopped up, messy here, undealt emotion over there, how do we begin approaching that?”

In designing programs with healing and care in mind, the Barriere Lake community hopes to integrate what they learned from hosting a former educational program across their traditional family territories throughout the 1990s. The “Summer Remedial Program” offered a means to pass down traditional land-based knowledge to youth in the community alongside curriculum from the provincial education system. This multi-sited educational approach to programming prefaces all stages of the healing process with teachings from the land and honours the tradition of preserving and protecting the landscape from overuse by seasonally alternating between sites.

As we undertook research both about and alongside the Barriere Lake community, the need to support Indigenous resurgence became essential. Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes of the need to create spaces of Indigenous land-based pedagogy that will inevitably challenge settler colonial authority and institutions:

“…a resurgence of Indigenous intellectual systems and a reclamation of the context within which those systems operate, goes much further to propelling our nationhood and re-establishing Indigenous political systems because it places people back on the land in a context that is conducive to resurgence and mobilization.”

With its location off-reserve, the Barriere Lake healing centre is already challenging settler authority. As non-Indigenous scholars within the disciplines of architecture and urban planning, we had to acknowledge the limits of our participation and risks of academicizing the research in a way that would further idealize Western knowledge over Indigenous knowledge. Our aim was to produce something practical and useful while preserving the autonomy and voice of the community leaders. The pragmatic approach of creating an output for our research that primarily supports the Barriere Lake healing centre project, along with our decision to create a short film emphasizing the community’s oral traditions, supports Indigenous resurgence by offering standalone tools that exist external to the CCA as an institution.

The presence of a GoFundMe page and our first conversation with Norman Matchewan, band councillor of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake who is guiding the healing centre project, revealed that the community must secure funding in order to initiate the first phase of construction. While there are future plans for the project that could involve architects, our position as researchers and design students thus became to observe the needs of the community in the beginning stages of the project and provide a type of media infrastructure that could respond to those needs and live on within the community.

After a one-week-long visit to Rapid Lake, we determined that the best output for our research would be to produce an open-access Google Drive which would house a short film about the healing lodge as the entry point for those accessing the Drive for the first time or for individuals hoping to learn more about the healing centre project, followed by an archive for funding materials. With Norman’s permission, we produced footage and sound clips of Keekagin during our visit to Rapid Lake and recorded conversations about the current phase of construction being undertaken by the community. With no prior objectives for what we would produce during our time in Rapid Lake, we hoped that we could provide a means to express the current state of the healing centre and the land it is situated upon to better understand the nuances of the building project and what it represents for the community.

In our interview with the director of Onen’tó:kon Healing Lodge, Lori Tarbell, we learned that organized tracking of client intake requests, resources related to facility programming, and documentation from the early stages of establishing a healing lodge all help to secure funding from a variety of government and non-government sources. The information Lori shared with us along with our knowledge of Barriere Lake’s geographically distant network of supporters including Shiri Pasternak, a longtime ally of Barriere Lake, drove us to create a digital infrastructure to aid in the processing and organization of funding and construction documentation for the healing centre. This way, the Barriere Lake community along with allies and those interested in how Indigenous healing centres are established could easily access, share, and contribute resources within the Drive.

The Barriere Lake Multipurpose Healing Centre Open-Access Google Drive currently provides an archive of past funding applications, an intake form to track requests to take on clients, audio and visual media of the current state of the healing lodge, and the short film. A user guide provides readers with a map of the folder structure, and instructions for using the Drive. We chose Google’s Shared Drive as the overarching structure as it is a free long-term resource that includes intuitive features for desktop and mobile users. Ownership of the Drive will be passed on to Norman Matchewan, Shiri Pasternak, and any other community members or allies that wish to participate. We hope the information contained within the shared Google Drive will be useful as a precedent for other Indigenous communities that wish to establish spaces for healing on their own territories.

As the three-year thematic cycle of In the Postcolony comes to a close, we propose to position this project and the immense efforts of the Barriere Lake community to materialize a healing centre on their territory as a prompt to continue conversations surrounding the effects of spatial and territorial dispossession activated by settler colonial pursuits.

This project was pursued under the guidance of Rafico Ruiz and in conversation both virtually and in-person with many outreach contacts. Throughout the course of the project, the Master’s Students spoke with the Barriere Lake community and fellow allies of the project with regards to their healing centre project, architects and managing directors of existing healing lodges, local filmmakers working alongside Indigenous communities in Quebec, designers (both graphic and architectural) working to provide communities with toolkits to better understand complex political systems, and CCA staff who assisted with the editing of the short film and research project. The authors would like to extend their thanks to Norman Matchewan, Jessica Thuskey, Maggie Wawatie, Cindy Deschenes, Kelley Bird-Naytowhow, Obert Friggstad, Guillaume Collin, Ann March, Lori Tarbell, Arlette Vandenhende, Norman Clarke, Rosten Woo, Christopher Clarke McQueen, Isadora Chicoine-Marinier, and the CCA staff. They would also like to thank Shiri Pasternak for her insightful feedback during the course of the project and for her sustained advocacy toward Keekagin and other initiatives taking place within the Barriere Lake community.

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