In the 1950s, Lower Post had the largest residential school in northern BC. The school had broad, deep impacts on Indigenous communities from BC, Alberta, Yukon and Northwest Territories, and those impacts have had a ripple effect through generations.  After it was closed, a portion of the residential school remained, and the Daylu Dena Nation was forced to use it as their band office due to lack of infrastructure.

In the summer of 2021, the Kaska Dena Nation laid the residential school building to rest in a burning ceremony, inviting surrounding communities and families of residential school survivors to attend, witness and partake in the ceremony.

Obsidian Architecture and SMK Architect are collaborating on a new, 27,000-square-foot facility that will serve as the heart of the community, providing recreation, cultural and administrative spaces.  The project was initially run as a design-build competition in 2016, but that method does not allow for engagement with community members. The architectural team was retained from the competition, and the project is now being delivered through a construction management method, which has allowed a much more integrated design and construction approach with the community.  The youth have built two scale models of the building and were able to use the project laptop and iPad, which helped facilitate an immersive, design-thinking experience, and though they didn’t know it in advance, each youth received a honorarium for their work on the project.

“The intent in providing these tools and skills to work in digital modelling is to keep youth engaged throughout the project,” says Kelly Edzerza-Bapty, principal with Obsidian Architecture. “They are excited to be part of the process. Honouring the youth for their work was a critical step forward in the community that we didn’t expect free labour.”

The project grew from 18,000 to 27,000 square feet, and with that, the building’s cultural heart began to take shape. Its elements embrace Kaska Dena understandings and style, with a round structure as central form and entry into a large, cultural gathering space. The building is made from timber harvested on the Kaska Dena People’s land, and it will include a cultural gallery, Elders lounge, library, Knowledge centre, Language centre, textile centre and—thanks to the youth engagement project—a recording studio.

“When we look in remote communities, one big hurdle is access and exposure,” Edzerza-Bapty says. “Often you don’t have libraries, community or youth centres, access to computers in every household or sports programs in remote communities. Youth and Elders need to have space of their own, where they can go and have the resources that they need to have meaningful mentorship and access to language, cultural activities and extra curricular supports.”

The building will serve every function—graduations, weddings, funerals, potlaches and beyond. Alongside the commercial kitchen and community café space, the building will also have an outdoor kitchen, which provides the ability to butcher and prepare traditional foods for ceremony and celebration.

The Cultural Centre will form the heart of the building, the round entrance of the building replicating the outdoor arbour and forming a large cultural gallery, with glass display cases for Kaska artifacts and artworks. A large set of carved doors will connect the Knowledge centre and gym to facilitate a more formal entrance for events where people might be drummed in, and its aesthetic will have the flexibility to adapt to different events and gatherings.

A cultural committee is being formed to work alongside Edzerza-Bapty to fabricate a large lighting sculpture that will haven in the space, and it will serve as a performance space for community gatherings. Leading off of the cultural gallery is a large Knowledge centre with language room and recording studio, digital resources and an Indigenous authored library.  Upstairs there is also a textiles studio, and large youth and Elders’ gallery that overlooks the cultural gallery. This floor also houses the administration wings that will include the lands guardians programs, all of the Daylu Dena Council Administration, and the band’s own Development Corporation, Iyon Ketchika.

Construction of the building foundations and timber structure began in May.  The design team is working with Kaska Artists and a cultural committee to inform the design details and decide how to integrate more Kaska characteristics into the interior. “We are working on a light installation in the cultural space and have talked about integrating Dena patterning burnished into the timber structure,” Edzerza-Bapty says.

Kaska Dena photographer Kali Spitzer will have a permanent installation in the gallery space of the building featuring tin-type photographs of Kaska Elders alongside voice recordings, as commemoration of Generational Knowledge.

When the building is finished, the community is planning to host a large celebration with hand-games celebration calling in teams from across northern BC, Yukon and NWT.

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