At a new downtown Toronto bank tower, construction wraps up later this year on a meeting room that evokes local First Nations history in a space meant to welcome all visitors.
Indigenous architects designed the 11.7-metre-by-5.8-metre room in one of two towers of the new Bay Street headquarters of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, with furniture by First Nations artisans.
The project – like a new $134-million public library opening in Saskatoon in 2026 – signals growing interest in hiring Indigenous architects and opening doors to reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.
CIBC’s room “was developed working with principles of intentional design and we knew it was key to have Indigenous voices at the forefront,” says Jaimie Lickers, vice-president of Indigenous markets at CIBC, who is Onondaga and from the Haudenosaunee community of Six Nations of the Grand River. “The idea of creating new spaces is to build areas where intentional reconciliation can grow.”
CIBC consulted Indigenous employees and clients, local First Nations leaders and non-Indigenous allies. Aided by the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund (which supports the creation of “legacy spaces” to promote reconciliation), CIBC selected the Indigenous Design Studio, a specialty practice at Brook McIlroy.
“It is really powerful when you have Indigenous practitioners and people on every side of the project,” says architect Ryan Gorrie, a member of Sand Point First Nation who leads the firm’s Winnipeg office. “It makes for a dynamic and powerful project.”
One of the room’s striking features is a vaulted ceiling of solid carved oak and wood-veneer ribbing that flows seamlessly into one wall, inspired by Anishinaabe teaching lodges and the longhouses of Huron-Wendat and Haudenosaunee villages. Three large circular ceiling lights allude to the Council of Three Fires, an alliance of Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi Nations. Etched on glass walls are the names of signatories to the Toronto Purchase that marked the sale of land by the Mississaugas of New Credit to Britain.
Mr. Gorrie says he aimed for a space “that is Indigenous in character but open to everyone.” In such a setting, he says, “people ask questions, and it becomes everyone’s space.”
CIBC’s room embodies Indigenous place-making, says Sarah Midanik, president of the Downie & Wenjack Fund. “It is not a plaque on a wall,” she says. “It is literally a living, breathing space that brings communities together. That is what place-making is.”
A sense of place – and community engagement – underpin the Indigenous-led design of a new downtown library in Saskatoon, where First Nations and Métis residents account for 9.1 per cent of the city’s population of 336,900. Saskatoon Public Library identified reconciliation, sustainability and accessibility as essential in consulting 13 advisory committees (including First Nations and Métis knowledge keepers) and the public on the project.
“We all have a place in this community, and we need to advance everyone in our community,” says Carol Cooley, the library’s chief executive officer, adding that there’s been “tremendous positive feedback” to the 136,000-square-foot building proposal.
First Nations architect Alfred Waugh, founder of Formline Architecture in Vancouver, leads the project in collaboration with Montreal-based Chevalier Morales Architectes and Winnipeg’s Architecture49.
Mr. Waugh, a member of Fond du Lac Denesuline Nation, whose father was British, says he drew on Indigenous and Western knowledge to design a library for “the people of Saskatoon as well as Indigenous and Métis culture[s].”
In the approved schematic design, the four-storey library sits on a white brick base, reflecting Saskatoon’s brick-building past. The curving exterior façade – a basketweave pattern of triple-glazed and back-painted glass panels to maximize natural light – echoes the translucent quality of a tipi.
Inside, cross-laminated timbers echo a Métis log cabin while contributing to sustainability through carbon offsets. The project aims for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification with a high-performance building envelope, a compact footprint, landscaping with local plants and, possibly, solar panels.
Like a tipiwith its opening at the top, the library uses diffused ventilation for hot air to rise through a clerestory (high window) above the fourth floor. There, a storytelling and learning circle includes ventilation for smudging ceremonies.
The project targets accessibility certification through the Rick Hansen Foundation with universal washrooms and bookshelves of varying heights.
Indigenous values begin with the land and the people, Mr. Waugh says. “We want to understand the significance of that place where the building is located.” With the library, he adds: “we are trying to create a place that everyone has some way of connecting to so that it feels like the living room of your city.”
Despite a growing profile, Indigenous architects are still scarce, with about 20 First Nations and Métis registered professionals in Canada.
“The next 10 years we will see more firms for sure,” predicts Mr. Waugh, the first Indigenous graduate of the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture in 1993.
Increasingly, schools are embracing Indigenous design thinking.
Métis architect David Fortin says “there was zero conversation about what Métis design or architecture would be” when he earned his degree. A registered professional since 2007, Mr. Fortin owns his own firm and is the first Indigenous dean of an architecture school in Canada.
Mr. Fortin, who wrapped his deanship at Laurentian University last year, praises efforts by his and other schools over the past decade. “The academic environment has really welcomed Indigenous thinking in the design process,” he says. “It is very promising in terms of recruitment ... people are starting to see it as a legitimate career path.”
Last year, on the recommendation of its Truth and Reconciliation Task Force, the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada unanimously adopted the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People.
The declaration marks progress toward the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s “calls to action,” including on the built environment, says long-time Nisga’a architect Patrick Stewart, a task force co-chair with Mr. Waugh. “It solidifies what we can ask of architects.”
Acknowledging Indigenous perspectives is a start, Mr. Stewart says. “We bring a little different way of looking at spaces.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misspelled Rick Hansen's surname.