Learning from Kitiganik
by Wade Eide

aerial photo of Kitiganik
Master Plan showing the expansion of the Algonquin community at Kitiganik, in the Traditional Territory of Mitchikanibikok Inik on the upper Ottawa River watershed, August, 1998. The new roads and trails extend organically from the new community centre, ending in family residential clusters.
Looking at the master plan drawings showing the future expansion of the Algonquin community at Kitiganik, one might be tempted to compare it with very low density suburbs, or with lakefront cottage developments. In reality, it is neither. Whereas the American suburb is designed to nurture our fantasies about living close to nature, the plan of Kitiganik is designed to allow the population of the Algonquin First Nation to live close to the land in a very real sense, as it has for millennia. Whereas the American suburb is a simulation, a hypocrisy and an ecological disaster, the Kitiganik plan is real, respectful of tradition and is in harmony with the land.

Mitchikanibikok Inik, "The People of the Stone Weir," have lived for centuries hunting, fishing and gathering foods and medicines from sub-boreal forest on the lands draining into the headwaters of the Ottawa River. The most important social institution of the community has always been the family and, traditionally, each family had husbandry over a portion of the territory and sustained itself from it. The families lived in loose clusters of cabins or shelters ("migwam" or "wigwam" in Algonquin) and would only come together as a community for feasts at Barriere Lake, the site of the stone fishing weir.

Closing the Circle
In spite of over three hundred years of contact with people of European origin, in relationships that were more often than not characterised by subtle and not-so-subtle forms of violence, Mitchikanibikok Inik has managed to maintain its hunting and fishing traditions, as well as its language and customs. The fact that the community of 480 persons now lives in a small village at Kitiganik is more the result of the cynical acts of two levels of government than a natural evolution of the community. In 1961 the government, in order to facilitate administration and, incidentally, the flooding of part of the territory for a hydroelectric reservoir, forced the people to move onto a tiny Reserve of 59 acres, half of which were unsuitable for building.

Things are now at last looking up. Negotiations with the federal and provincial governments for the joint management of the traditional territory are making slow but steady progress. As part of that process, the community prepared a master plan outlining the physical growth of a settlement area well outside of the original 59 acre Reserve. The entire project--management of the territory and master plan--is based explicitly on the principles of sustainable development, ecological responsibility and the use of indigenous knowledge. In fact, the planning process leading to the development of the master plan completed in August of this year, was guided by two overarching principles:

  1. Respect for the traditions of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake; and
  2. Respect for the principles of sustainable living, sustainable development and sustainable communities.
Mitchikanibikok Inik's Master Plan for its community was the result of a collaborative process between the community and its consultant, ensuring that the plan was in harmony with its traditions.

The second principle is in complete harmony with the first, and is, in fact, an extension of it. When the Brundtland Commission defined the term "sustainable development" in 1987 as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs", there was embodied in that term a notion that has always been a traditional part of the Algonquin culture of living in harmony with Mother Earth. The Brundtland Commission recognized that traditional societies hold a vast knowledge of the ecosystems in which they live. If humanity is going to survive on this planet, it must be willing to learn from those societies:

Their very survival has depended upon their ecological awareness and adaptation...These communities are the repositories of vast accumulations of traditional knowledge and experience that links humanity with its ancient origins. Their disappearance is a loss for the larger society, which could learn a great deal from their traditional skills in sustainably managing very complex ecological systems. It is a terrible irony that as formal development reaches more deeply into rainforests, deserts, and other isolated environments, it tends to destroy the only cultures that have proved able to thrive in these environments.

This important principle was further expressed in Article 8(j) of the Convention on Biological Diversity:

...Respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and promote their wider application with the approval and involvement of the holders of such knowledge, innovations and practices and encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilisation of such knowledge, innovations and practices.
The master plan must provide the physical structure upon which the community can grow, and it must strengthen and sustain the personal and family relationships that will, according to traditions, make the community whole. The plan must also be in harmony with the other principles concerning use of resources and of "living lightly on the land." But the key is community. As David Suzuki puts it in his recent book, The Sacred Balance:
Just as the key to a species' survival in the natural world is its ability to adapt to local habitats, so the key to human survival will probably be the local community. If we can create vibrant, increasingly autonomous and self-reliant local groupings of people that emphasise sharing, co-operation and living lightly on the Earth, we can avoid the fate warned of by Rachel Carson [the author of Silent Spring] and world scientists and restore the sacred balance of life.
The Mitchikanibikok Inik Master Plan shows that the expansion of the community can be done in a way that respects harmony on at least four levels: Like a plant rooted in the fertile soil of the community's cohesion and spirit, a network of roads cut into the forest grows from its base in the existing village and extends into the territory, pushing its shoots to the places that are best suited to bear its "fruit", the family residential clusters. The grouping of the houses of the families in five and ten unit clusters respects the traditional way of occupying the land. Like the family camp sites in their hunting territories, the houses are loosely grouped around a short access road and a node. Each house occupies a large lot of approximately one hectare. These large lots provide the sense of space important for the well-being of the household as well as the space for vegetable gardens or even for the raising of some domestic poultry or livestock. Each lot is self-sufficient, with its own well and septic system, eliminating the need for an expensive centralised system.

At the centre of the organic growth of the community is the Great Circle of the community centre. Around this perfect circle cut into the pine forest (the only geometrically pure form in the project) are the major public buildings of the community: the community centre, the school, the police and fire station, the covered skating rink and other buildings that could have business or commercial functions. This new civic centre is near the geographic centre of the expanded community.

The People of the Brick Barbecue
Now, contrast this with North American automobile suburb development. While the layout of many suburbs may have similarities to Kitiganik, the underlying reasons for the form are very different and, ultimately, the impact on the ecology of the earth is profoundly different. The essential difference is this: The Algonquin's desire is to live on the land that sustains him. He takes care of and gives back to the land. The suburbanite's desire, on the other hand, is for an escape from the city, the city that sustains both the suburb and the suburbanite. Whereas the Algonquin has, in a sense, earned the right to live on the part of Mother Earth that sustains him, the suburbanite has merely bought the right to live on a piece of land that reminds him of the country or the wilderness.

The suburbanite does not live on the land that provides for his needs. The territory that does actually provide the food and resource requirements of the city is outside of the land taken up by suburban sprawl. Even his desire to escape the city is an illusion. No matter how far away from the city centre his home might be, it is still part of the city system. He depends on the city for his livelihood, for his material needs and for his entertainment. Getting close to Nature is more than likely an illusion as well. When he returns to his house in the suburbs, chances are he does his best to close himself up in air conditioned isolation, shut off from his neighbours and even from those little representations of nature that are his front and back yards. (And God forbid that weeds or insects even get close to the perfect patch of lawn! Nature, sure, but only the "nice" parts of Nature.)

Apart from the fantasies of country life and wilderness living that the suburb may somehow satisfy, the suburban home may have some apparent advantages, such as more interior and exterior space at lower cost than most of what is available in more densely urban areas. But, the reasons for the disparity between the cost and quality of residential spaces in the suburb and in the central city are many and complex, not the least of which is the fact that suburban development has been very highly subsidised by national and regional governments. I think that if suburbanites were to pay the true costs of their choice of living in the suburbs, including the costs of providing and maintaining the roads, utilities, and services that they use, there would be a reversal in the exodus from the city. An increased demand for quality residential building and quality public space in the city would force city administrations, planners, architects and developers to provide it.

Through a Windowglass, Darkly
The desire to find some sort of a communion with nature is, I think, universal. The city has come to be seen as the antithesis of nature. Certainly, our way of living in cities tends to cut us off completely from all that is natural. We drive to work in air conditioned cars, work in air conditioned office buildings, shop in air conditioned shopping malls. If, perchance, we are forced to walk and actually feel fresh air on our face, we are confronted with the sorry spectacle of streets without trees, or streets that lost their trees when widened to accommodate the automobile. Besides, the air itself is likely to be contaminated with the fumes produced by our favourite means of transportation. Furthermore, in addition to cutting trees and widening streets, we have tended to channel natural waterways in underground conduits or use ravines for the construction of freeways. Ironically, the sprawling of the suburban development over farmland and into wilderness areas has pushed Nature further and further away from the city. One might fear that the advertisers of "sports utility vehicles" are right: the only way to get into the wilderness is to hop in one of those dreadful machines and head for the nearest freeway out of the city and suburbs. (I'm not even going to get into the irony and the hypocrisy of those images of SUVs romping through forest and stream!)

A Neighbourhood Is More Than Houses
What, then are we to do? It is essential for our spiritual well being (and ultimately, to our survival) to get ourselves reconnected to our planet, to get close to the earth, the air and the water that give us life. Most of us, unless we live on the land as the Algonquins do, or as farmers do, have not earned the right selfishly to take up a large chunk of land for our own use. We must remember that every plot of land in the suburbs also requires the sacrificing of an enormous area of land for of the freeways, roads and parking lots that must be built to service those plots, since most suburban development since the 1950s has been based on the use of the automobile as the primary means of transit. I think that it is possible to live more densely and still have small plots of land of our own in order to have gardens that are much more satisfying to our spirit that the decorative front lawns of the suburbs. It is essential that cities maintain, preserve and restore the nature that exists (or existed) within their boundaries. We need tree-lined boulevards and avenues. We need neighbourhood squares. We need large urban parks like Central Park in New York or Parc du Mont-Royal in Montréal. And we need very large wilderness areas just outside of our cities.

Those of us who are not hunters-gatherers or farmers must accept and celebrate our urbanity. We really have little choice but to live in cities and the city is by far the most ecologically responsible choice that we can make. We must learn to see that the urban landscape of Montréal has as much meaning and beauty as the natural landscape of Kitiganik. With a very minor adjustment to our attitudes and actions, we can enjoy Nature in our cities as well. That means walking or riding a bike instead of getting in an air-tight car. That means opening a window instead of turning on an air-conditioner. That means enjoying the gardens, the trees, the birds and even the wild animals that exist in our cities. And when we feel the urge, that means getting on our bike and riding out to the country or wilderness area that almost always exists within pedaling distance of the city.

The lesson of Kitiganik? Respect for the Earth, respect for each other. For the people of Kitiganik, that means living lightly on the land and living close to the land in a family groupings that are true to the age-old social tradition of the community. For me in Montréal, that means living as lightly as I can on my own little bit of land. Living modestly but comfortably in a moderately dense residential area close to the city centre. Using as little street space as possible by riding a bike instead of driving a car. Feeling the air on my face as I ride into work. Enjoying the changes of the seasons, the changes in the play of light on buildings and trees according to the time of day or the changes in weather. And every once in awhile, taking that little ride out of the city.…

Wade Eide is an architect practising in Montréal. His architectural and planning firm, Atelier BRAQ, worked with the people of Mitchikanibikok Inik in developing and preparing their Master Plan.