Building on the past: honouring the architect of Oujé-Bougoumou’s first structure

Share Button

A Shaputuan – sometimes spelled sabutan – is a traditional Cree longhouse shelter with a door on each end. One door represents a respect for knowledge passed forward from the Elders. The other symbolizes new kinds of learning taken out into the world, opening up a future that has yet to be written.

When Oujé-Bougoumou’s Chief, Abel Bosum, made the call to architectural firm Fournier Kephart in April 1989 to discuss the very first structure of a yet-to-be-built community, it was the traditional Shaputuan that was to be the inspiration. Of course, this structure would be much larger, capable of holding 400 people for ceremonies and serving as a skating rink in winter.

Its construction was central to the vision of the long-awaited village of Oujé-Bougoumou. The village was the crucial element of the First Nation’s determination to occupy and govern their traditional territory, after decades of displacement and marginalization by the mining and forestry industries.

With the full participation of community members, the new village was planned with careful consideration for the needs of both present and future generations. It was like having a “clean slate, a clean piece of paper upon which we were charged with the responsibility to write the first chapter of our community′s future,” said Abel Bosum, now the Grand Chief of the Crees.

As the village’s first founding gesture, the Shaputuan is a powerful traditional symbol of presence on the land. Renowned architect Douglas Cardinal was called on to design the village’s street pattern and most important buildings, with key community-gathering spaces placed in a central circle location.

The circular shape represents a traditional medicine wheel and the Aboriginal spherical concepts of time and history, while symbolically referencing concepts of community healing and growth. In the centre of this circle, at the very heart of the community, is the Shaputuan.

The project’s lead architect, Dana Kephart, recently passed away after a year-long battle with cancer. Kephart was originally from Grand Junction, Colorado, an area with a long history of Navajo, Hopi and other First Nations presence. His youth was steeped in his family’s interest in these traditions, beginning a lifelong passion for culture and history that led him to close personal and working relationships with Aboriginal people.

That passion suffused his architectural work, says his daughter, Elza Kephart.

“Dana was obsessed with understanding the needs of his clients and transforming them into well-designed, practical, culturally significant, as well as beautiful buildings,” she remembered. “He was very proud of these achievements and never stopped telling his family and friends that the years he spent working with Cree and Inuit communities were the best of his professional life.”

Following his university studies in 1969, Kephart spent two years working with a group of young architects in Morocco. He immersed himself in the country’s culture and created various housing projects inspired by their materials and practices. With his French wife, he decided to move to Montreal in the early 1970s, finding work at PGL Architectes. That’s where he met Alain Fournier.

The two shared a common vision regarding their respectful attitude toward working with communities, and launched their own firm, Fournier-Kephart, in 1981. Work began in 1983 for their first in a long series of projects with Cree and Inuit communities – the air terminal in Iqaluit, Nunavut, the now-iconic structure that Kephart playfully called the “yellow submarine”.

“Now it’s in Inuit children’s books as representing an Arctic structure, so it was dead on as far as integrating into the culture,” Fournier told the Nation. “That’s always been a primary concern of ours, integrating the architecture into the culture, the communities that we’re working with.”

As consultations with Oujé-Bougoumou began, Kephart passionately researched Cree culture. He was profoundly interested in Cree spirituality and fascinated by the ingenuity of their traditional structures, tools and materials. “To him, it wasn’t a business,” said Fournier. “He was very passionate about what he was doing, being personally involved. That’s how he struck up friendships.”

As he worked to translate the community’s vision into an architectural form, Kephart started lifelong friendships with Abel Kitchen, Jack Blacksmith and Robert Ottereyes. The Shaputuan was designed to go up quickly, with a series of posts, trusses and pre-fabricated sections that were easily assembled. The structure was finished by August 1989, four months after the initial call to Fournier-Kephart.

The summer of 1989 was historic. After several years of protracted negotiations with the Quebec government, Oujé-Bougoumou took drastic actions to ensure their concerns were taken seriously. The community declared jurisdiction over the territory, blockaded the access road to the village, and established their own court that convicted both provincial and federal governments of breaching their fiduciary obligation to Oujé-Bougoumou.

In September, an agreement with Quebec was finally signed during a ceremony in the new Shaputuan. Quebec would contribute financially toward the village’s construction while acknowledging certain local jurisdiction over the Oujé-Bougoumou Cree traditional territory. It also amended the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement to include Oujé-Bougoumou as a full-fledged community of Eeyou Istchee.

In the following years, the village sprung up quickly, preserving the harmonious nature of the Cree traditional way of life in the context of contemporary facilities and institutions. The rooflines of subsequent buildings were like mirror images of the Shaputuan.

Cultural sensitivity and community consultation informed the architectural work of both Kephart and Cardinal. Cardinal had sat in a traditional dwelling during the early visualization sessions and recalled “a feeling of being rooted, of being sheltered, of being in harmony with nature and with the natural environment.”

The resulting community has become an international example of sustainable development, innovative design and decolonization of the architectural process. It was named a model community by the United Nations in 1995.

For Kephart and Fournier, the project led to further involvement with First Nations and Inuit communities. They worked on several projects in Waswanipi and recently finished work on a program for a hospital in Chisasibi. In Nunavik, the firm designed the Kuujjuaq Forum, an arena and community centre, as well as various air terminals.

Although Kephart moved on to other interests in 1995, he returned to the office five years ago to help work on the Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay. Fournier and Kephart won an architectural competition to design the world-class building, which should be occupied within a few months.

“I’ve carried on with Dana’s work and the way he looked at things,” Fournier explained. “Sometimes architects are there to give shape to the community’s vision. I was in Oujé about a month and a half ago, and was quite surprised to see how [the Shaputuan] has become an icon there, how they were actually interested in learning about the history of the building.”

It was a particularly emotional trip for Fournier because his former partner had passed away not long before. In his final years, Kephart had turned his attention to artistic pursuits and concern about how climate change is affecting Native communities.

During his illness, Fournier added, Kephart would often gaze at a portrait of Chief Seattle on his bedside table, under which was written: “The earth doesn’t belong to man. Man belongs to the earth.”


Share Button

Comments are closed.