How does the UNCEDED exhibit relate to “Freespace”?

Cultural hosts Kateri Lucier-Laboucan, Danny Roy and Dani Kastelein explore the relationship between “freespace” and the UNCEDED exhibit through Sovereignty, Colonialism, Resilience and Indigeneity.

Note: Rather than relating similar experiences to those of the first group of students, we decided to use our blog entry as a platform to explore our thoughts surrounding the Biennale’s chosen theme and its relationship with the UNCEDED exhibit.


Freespace can be a space for opportunity, a democratic space, un-programmed and free for uses not yet conceived. There is an exchange between people and buildings that happens, even if not intended or designed, so buildings themselves find ways of sharing and engaging with people over time, long after the architect has left the scene.

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, Curators of the 16th International Architecture Exhibition Biennale Architettura 2018

The theme Freespace as conceived by the exhibition’s curators of the 16th International Architecture Biennale, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, can be interpreted in many ways. This is evident through the many different exhibitions across the Biennale we were able to experience during our time in Venice. When visitors asked us about the relationship between the UNCEDED exhibit and the theme of the Biennale, it was difficult to come up with one cohesive definition of how “freespace” was perceived by Aboriginal people. Eventually, we realized that the relationship between Indigeneity and Freespace could be related to visitors if we chose to unpack its complexities through the four thematic sections presented by the exhibit itself; Sovereignty, Colonialism, Resilience and Indigeneity.

Unpacking and understanding Freespace from an Indigenous perspective is a contentious and multilayered issue. Concerns regarding past and current colonial ideologies tied to unceded territory, treaty rights, Eurocentric mapping policies and Aboriginal title have had a profound effect on how Indigenous people perceive free space and place themselves within the dialogue. Past atrocities including the abuses endured through the residential school system, the past and lingering frameworks such as the Indian Act, Reserve Lands, acts of displacement and loss of sovereignty have led to a shift in mindset. These deep-entrenched policies of cultural genocide and racism have caused systemic trends leading to the erasure of aboriginal identity; including ties to traditional knowledge sources, culture, language and political structures. Ultimately, colonization has produced fragmentation and dismemberment at both the material and spiritual level; leading to a loss of freedom and lack of free space.

However, as we reflect on the last few centuries and the atrocities that Indigenous people have endured, we can observe small shifts towards progression of our Indigenous communities. Through Idle No More and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada process, we have begun a dialogue of our placement in this new era. We can begin to see a path forward that is led by our diverse, young, and resilient Indigenous Peoples.

We can see this shift happening through the UNCEDED exhibition, specific in the lens of design and architecture. Contemporary Indigenous Architects, Planners, and Designers have showcased how they are assisting in allowing for the recovery of knowledge and Indigenous autonomy contributing to the shift towards cultural resilience. They have become agents for a new sense of stewardship to the land and their communities. Architects and community leaders across Turtle Island allow our nations to regain a sense of autonomy and agency through architecture and community design.

Indigenous culture contains a significant intangible element to it; the oral stories and traditions that are passed down through generations, the inherent understanding of how nature and the landscape plays into everyday lives, the relationships and bonds that are created within family and community frameworks, these are just a few examples of this intangibility. Through Indigenous architecture, it is about reclaiming free space to create tangible spaces for Indigenous people to take part in gatherings and ceremonies; to pass down knowledge, to find ways to heal and to strengthen connections between communities, families and culture. Architecture further lends itself by helping to translate both the tangible and intangible elements of Indigenous identity within the spaces conceived, reframing how Aboriginal people are represented within the contemporary built environment.

The relationship between the broader concept of “free” space (or freedom of space) and Aboriginal people is also compromised since their spaces have, for a long time, been synonymous with censorship and secrecy. Indigenous Architecture has since allowed First Nations, Inuit and Métis people to become a visible and present force within our communities and not just a part of Canada’s history. Architecture is one of the ways in which Indigenous people have been able to showcase their resiliency and Indigeneity.

We see this demonstrated through the interviews of the architects and designers that play in the UNCEDED exhibition. Some comments we have heard from visitors are summarized as: “Where was the consistency between the different examples of Indigenous architecture shown in the exhibit?” Our response: through the interviews, one sees and hears the diversity and variety of Indigenous architecture approaches. Across the vast lands of Turtle Island, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to architecture and design. We can distill Indigenous architecture down to six key principles, as shown at the very beginning of the exhibit, but one soon realizes there are many different approaches to these principles. The eighteen architects and designers that are a part of the UNCEDED exhibit presented their own understanding of what free space is within the work they have done with communities and how they applied their approach to the principles of Indigenous architecture.In essence; how did we communicate all of this to visitors? The long and the short of it was simply this: Indigenous people have suffered and continue to suffer from a system of racism and disenfranchisement; through Architecture, Indigenous architects have succeeded in giving them a voice, making the invisible visible, by using a set of Indigenous principles and ideologies passed down from their ancestors. While progress has been made towards reconciliation, as we have witnessed through these last few decades, we have a long and winding journey ahead of us that involves the commitment of everyone that inhabits Turtle Island.

Authors, from left to right: Kateri Lucier-Laboucan, Danny Roy and Dani Kastelein


Let us begin by introducing ourselves, we are the second group of Canadian students acting as cultural representatives for the UNCEDED: Voices of the Land Exhibition of 2018 at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Our team includes Kateri Lucier-Laboucan, Danny Roy and Dani Kastelein (we know, having two Dans was confusing for us too).

We would like to take the opportunity to thank our sponsors: The University of Waterloo - School of Architecture; The University of Calgary - Faculty of Environmental Design; and The University of Toronto - Daniels Faculty of Architecture, without your support we would not have been able to take part in such a fulfilling journey. We would also like to thank our pavilion Manager Tamara Andruszkiewicz, who went to great lengths to ensure that we were taken care of during our stay in Venice. To our friends helping at the pavilion; Giacomo, Alessandro, Chiara, Antonella and Valentina for lending us a guiding hand and always making us feel welcome, thank you. Finally, to Ginger; who would always manage to lift our spirits whenever she was present, we are very grateful.

After reading the first group’s entry, we found that many of our interactions and impressions were mirrored in their experiences. This included meeting a wide range of individuals from many different countries with varying levels of knowledge concerning Canadian Indigenous people of Canada. Some visitors were coming from countries with similar Indigenous contexts and histories and therefore knowledgeable about the subject matter. Consequently, we also met visitors who had little to no knowledge concerning Indigenous people in Canada, much less about their Architecture. Finally, in the final category; were the individuals with preconceived notions surrounding Indigenous identity, customs and lifestyle. Much of our time and energy was spent de-mystifying and educating those who knew little of our existence. While at times these discussions may have been uncomfortable addressing past and current hardships of Indigenous communities, we hope we were able to progress a better understanding of our very diverse and resilient culture of Indigeneity across Turtle Island.

Occasionally however, there were moments when we would meet visitors from North America, Africa or Australia who were thrilled to discuss Indigenous identity and sovereignty through the lens of architecture. These conversations were fulfilling and left us feeling a sense of hope and excitement.

Although short, our four-week experience from the end of July to August was life changing. Being a part of the UNCEDED exhibit was gratifying, it allowed us to celebrate our identities and be proud of who we are. Seeing the work of all the architects and designers was empowering and filled us with a sense of hope and tangibility. Thank you again to everyone who made this experience possible, we are forever grateful.

Tansi, Miigwetch, Ciao, Merci, Thank-you!!

Kateri, Danny and Dani