There was a time after fire destroyed Red Crow Community College on the Kainai Nation (Blood Tribe) reserve south of Calgary that it looked like it wasn’t going to be rebuilt. The 2015 deliberately-set blaze forced students to take post-secondary classes at a nearby old elementary school, where they remained for nearly seven years – long after college officials announced plans to construct a new campus. The project was hampered by a slow insurance process – the arson resulted in more than $10-million in losses to be reclaimed – and the need for additional monies to cover construction costs, which the federal government and municipal/other sources eventually anteed up years later.
Finally, in fall 2022, the new $48-million campus opened across the highway from the original site, righting not one wrong but two. The obvious, especially to those outside the First Nations community, is the rebuild itself after the fire; the other is the college now owns a building that’s not a reminder of Indigenous peoples’ painful history. (The college had occupied the former St. Mary’s residential school since 1986.)
Situated atop a hill in Standoff, Alta., the newly built state-of-the-art learning space includes classrooms, workshops, laboratories, academic and counselling spaces for students, administrative and program spaces for employees, a library, cafeteria and daycare. As it also serves as a community hub that celebrates Blackfoot culture, featuring a museum and archive area, cultural teaching and gathering space, and a ceremonial round room used as a functional spiritual centre for Elders.
From a design viewpoint, what’s most impressive is the extensive use of wood throughout the approximately 100,000-square-foot facility constructed by Clark Builders. The natural building material was chosen by the project’s prime consultant, Kasian Architecture Interior Design and Planning Ltd., to convey the spirit of the college, represent harmony with nature, and for its durability, ensuring the final results are long-lasting and easily maintained.
Wood’s use is immediately evident upon entering the new campus. The 35-foot tall central gathering atrium, built to be able to accommodate a tipi, showcases a unique, sloped wood lattice ceiling comprised of Douglas fir glue-laminated beams, known for its rich red and yellow tones, and spruce pine panels. It is supported by four Douglas fir glulam wood columns that split toward the ceiling to emulate the branches of a tree. The columns were purposefully designed in this way, as the strength and permanence of the ‘trees’ add a sense of stability and identity to the historically traditional Blackfoot culture. To avoid interrupting the view of the wood ceiling, the electrical, HVAC and sprinkler systems were integrated above the structure. At the south end of the atrium is the ceremonial room with a wood panel detail that reflects the feather pattern of the traditional Blackfoot stand-up headdress.
Large Douglas fir glulam beams also feature prominently in the gymnasium, another space of cultural importance as it’s used for hosting powwows and Indigenous dance celebrations, as well as weddings, funerals and other community events.
Wood carries through the common spaces with suspended wood slat ceilings, furniture applications, signage and locker millwork. Light maple and dark walnut tones are used to create a warm and inviting environment for both students and staff.
Offering adult education and academic upgrading for community members, Red Crow Community College is the first-ever tribal college in Canada, bestowed the distinction in 1995. The new campus was recognized by jurors at the 2023 Prairie Wood Design Awards ceremony in May.
Clare Tattersall is an interior designer and decorator in Toronto, and the editor of Canada’s floor covering magazine, Coverings.