“Douglas Cardinal and the Oujé Bougoumou Community” Written by Marianne Williams (Carleton University)

Douglas Cardinal has been one of the most prominent and influential Canadian architects in recent history. Designing high-profile institutions like the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa stand out within his career, but he has pursued a wide variety of projects, ranging from churches to community plans. His mixed Aboriginal and Euro-Canadian heritage is reflected in his works, which often reflect traditional Aboriginal values as well as strong European Expressionist influences, creating a unique faction of Prairie Expressionism. His buildings often evoke natural, organic forms, with undulating curvatures of the exterior and rounded edges. Integrating a building into its surroundings both aesthetically and environmentally has been of particular interest in Cardinal’s work. As an early adopter of environmentally-conscious and sustainable methods of building and designing, respecting the flora and fauna surrounding a site became as important as accommodating clients’ and communities’ unique needs in the works Cardinal and his firm produced. He has won numerous awards, honorary degrees and recognitions for his architectural innovations, and his holistic approach has had him develop a reputation as one of the most sought-after architects in the country. Throughout his career, he has designed a number of projects working with Aboriginal communities in both the United States and Canada. While he is well known for designing prominent projects like the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College in Regina and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, he also worked with small Aboriginal communities across Canada to develop structures that highlight and preserve the needs and values of Aboriginal peoples in Canada[1].

One of Cardinal’s largest and most impressive projects has been his master plan for the Village of the Oujé Bougoumou Cree Nation in Northern Quebec. Oujé-Bougoumou is located approximately 740 kilometers north of Ottawa, with a population slightly over 600 in 2006[2]. Cardinal has worked on a number of projects in Oujé-Bougoumou throughout his career, including the Oujé-Bougoumou Health Clinic (1991), the Oujé-Bougoumou Business Office (1993), the Oujé-Bougoumou Church (1996) and most recently, the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute (2011-ongoing)[3]. In 2002, he won the United Nations Sustainable Design Award for his work in Oujé-Bougoumou, one of the most prestigious honours for an architect and a sustainable community in the world[4]. This paper will examine his approach to his projects in Oujé-Bougoumou and look at why these buildings have become successful examples of sustainable development for other Indigenous communities all over the world.

The History of the Village of Oujé-Bougoumou

Home to at least nine different Cree bands, the Chisasibi, the Eastmain, the Mistissini, the Nemiscau, the Waskaganish, the Waswanipi, the Wemindji, the Whapmagoostui, and the Oujé-Bougoumou, the James Bay region in Northern Quebec has supported Aboriginal habitation for over 5000 years[5]. Fish, caribou, geese, blueberries and crimson bearberries grow in great abundance throughout the region, and these remain to be important food sources for Northern Cree to the present day[6]. The Cree people lived a sustainable lifestyle in accordance with the environment and the natural resources surrounding them. Relatively uninfluenced by non-Aboriginal society until the mid-twentieth century, many Cree elders alive today have recollections of living harmoniously on the land in accordance with traditional lifestyles as well as enjoying political and cultural autonomy over their people[7].

In the 1940s, mining prospectors began surveying the region for natural resources[8]. A number of prominent mineral deposits were identified, and mining and forestry companies quickly began to move into the area[9]. With the economic development interests of the mining companies taking precedence over the cultural continuation of the James Bay Cree, and the colonial governmental policies imposed on them from both the provincial and federal governments, the Cree communities began to suffer enormous social, political, economic and cultural consequences[10]. Cree villages and settlements were continually bulldozed and destroyed, displacing communities and creating major disruptions to the cultural and economic foundations of Cree society. After a total of nine[11] forced relocations over a number of decades, many Cree communities and cultural traditions in the James Bay region were devastated, with residents living in sub-standard housing in deplorable conditions[12].

After the last relocation of the Oujé Bougoumou in 1970, most people were living in informal housing such as shacks, tent-frames or ditches along the sides of roads with little access to services like running water or electricity[13]. With a dozen mines and a number of forestry companies operating on the one thousand square miles of traditional territory of the Oujé-Bougoumou, the natural resources they had depended on were also being rapidly exploited and irrevocably damaged by mineral extraction and clear cutting[14]. Approximately $4 billion profit margins were being reaped from the region by mining and forestry companies, with no economic benefit being yielded to the Oujé Bougoumou, creating a deep sense of disempowerment and economic isolation within the community[15]. The Oujé Bougoumou suffered from a wide range of personal and social problems as the result of the impacts of colonialism and the consequent dispossession of parts of their territory, as well as the increasing alienation and marginalization from economic, political and social agency[16].

Throughout the 1980s, the Oujé Bougoumou began negotiating with the province of Quebec to gain power over their growing concerns surrounding the well being of their territory and their community[17]. In 1989 and 1990, after a series of blockades and political protesting from the Oujé Bougoumou, both the federal Canadian government and the province of Quebec agreed to financially back the building of a new village for the Oujé Bougoumou community, a program totaling approximately $75 million[18]. After the securing of funding, the challenge lay in how to translate the social and economic needs of the Oujé-Bougoumou into an architectural environment

The Early Development Process of Oujé Bougoumou

In her book Art on My Mind: Visual Politics, bell hooks[19] explains that spatial environments have psychological and emotional effects on the people within them, and can both aggravate or improve social problems depending on the relationship between them. When people feel like they have a control over their built environment, they also feel empowered[20]. hooks argues that government-implemented public or standardized housing projects often create a sense of powerless, as the people who live in them are unable to intervene in or transform their relationship to space[21]. For First Nations communities in Canada, government housing is not simply a metaphorical indicator of spatial power but also an extension of imperialism and colonization of Aboriginal land and territories[22]. The Oujé-Bougoumou leaders were particularly wary of creating a colonized spatial environment, and ended up selecting Douglas Cardinal, a Blackfoot Metis, as chief architect for the project in order to avoid Eurocentric or governmental control over the design of their community.

When speaking about this initial development process, Cardinal is quick to assert that he “didn’t know a thing about the James Bay Cree” when he took on the Oujé Bougoumou project[23]. This is important in understanding Cardinal’s design process mentality as well as the variation and diversity among Aboriginal groups within Canada. While Cardinal is Aboriginal himself, he refused to give himself the authority to design the community based solely on his perceptions and technical knowledge. Cardinal has strong convictions of basing planning around the vision of the community he’s serving rather than his own ideas, as it is ultimately the community who has to inhabit and navigate the spaces he designs[24]. Upon arriving in Oujé Bougoumou, he immediately began an extensive and thorough community consultation process, organizing a number of forums, meetings and ceremonies for the Oujé Bougoumou nation to give input[25]. Cardinal asked everyone in the Oujé Bougoumou community, including nurses, teachers, elders and children, to provide feedback, which in turn he took into serious consideration[26]. By decolonizing the architectural planning process and giving the Oujé Bougoumou agency over their spatial imaginations, Cardinal began expanding the plans beyond just a housing project into an architectural assertion of the political sovereignty of the Oujé Bougoumou[27]. Through these community consultations, two main objectives arose. One objective was to facilitate the preservation of key features of the life, world-view, values, and rituals of the Cree[28]. The other principle was to design Oujé Bougoumou on a traditional Cree village layout and use traditional dwellings as inspiration for the new developments[29].

Facilitating the Cree Worldview at Oujé Bougoumou

In Jennifer Emberley’s examination of Indigenous visual sovereignty, she emphasizes the importance of “designs and materials that carry an interwoven set of economic, political and cultural values specific to Indigenous societies”[30]. The design of Oujé Bougoumou illustrates this concept exceptionally. The site of the village is on the raised sand shores of Lake Opemiska[31]. Posed with the natural beauty and elevation of the site, Cardinal was able to design every domestic and commercial structure in the village with a view of the lake from their window. If one can see the lake from every building in the village, the lake becomes a communal focal point. This feature of design maximized the existing natural aesthetics of the environment to reinforce a cultural relationship to the land through a constant visualization for the Oujé Bougoumou community.

In designing the structures for Oujé Bougoumou, Cardinal relied heavily on his own interactions and experiences of traditional Cree housing. In the following passage, Cardinal recounts his thoughts while sitting in an astiiugamika[32]:

This traditional dwelling has served the people for generations. Sitting in this space during our discussion, our dreaming session, our visualization sessions, helped generate future concepts, for instance the conviction that the village housing should resemble this form. There was a feeling of well being in this space. The walls consisted of some four feet of softly sloped dirt. Natural light came from the skylight directly above the fire area. Being part of the earth and of nature was overwhelming and was reinforced by the awareness that only natural materials were used. There was a feeling of being rooted, of being sheltered, of being in harmony with nature and with the natural environment. Even more important than the dwelling itself, we found, is the embodiment in the dwelling of the traditional lifestyle and culture of the people. The people and we truly felt that this traditional form could provide the inspiration for the development of the entire community[33].

The essence of the astiiugamika can be found in each of the buildings at Oujé-Bougoumou today, including the church, a school, a band office, a business office, a hotel, and a cultural institute. These buildings act as community centres and gathering places, and thus, Cardinal has placed them in a central circle location. Surrounding these community-gathering spaces, Cardinal has placed the domestic housing, including residences designed specifically for teachers and elders. The placement of each of these buildings is also carefully examined in relation to each other and their various functions in Cree culture.  For example, the Waapihitiiwewan school is located within the outer, residential circle, occupying a “transitional space between the home and the world, preparing the next generation for employment and post-secondary education”[34]. The centre of the community is designed around the circular shape of a traditional medicine wheel as well as Aboriginal spherical concepts of time and history. This shape directly references concepts of community healing and growth.

In addition to the layout and design of the village, Cardinal included a number of designs to better facilitate the traditional Cree use of space. The implementation of organic and natural materials in the construction of all of the buildings at Oujé-Bougoumou was particularly important to Cardinal[35]. As a result, spruce-bow and natural woods give the interiors of the spaces in Oujé-Bougoumou a specific smell, reminding the inhabitants olfactorily as well as visually of traditional Cree dwellings and experiences in the natural environment[36]. In compliance with both a sustainable relationship to the land and utilization of the resources around the village, Douglas integrated a system that burns wood waste from nearby sawmills in a single plant and then distributes heating throughout the community[37]. Due to the sandy foundation of the site, children must remove their shoes and wear traditional moccasins inside the Waapihitiiwewan school. Cardinal installed low level shelves in the entrance to facilitate this practical and cultural observance, showing a dedication and commitment to the Oujé Bougoumou community down to precise details.


Cardinal’s community-based approach to urban design, as well as the culturally sensitive and specific considerations in his architectural forms, allowed for the Oujé Bougoumou nation to develop and conceptualize their own sustainable, healthy community. After the collective trauma of colonization and disenfranchisement as a result of decades of forced relocation, the Oujé Bougoumou, through the imagining of themselves as active agents in a permanent spatial environment, were able to begin community healing and reconciliation effort. By humbling his authority as an outsider architect, Cardinal gave the right to determine the design of the village to Oujé Bougoumou, creating a fluid and functional space based on Cree culture and traditions. In utilizing natural and sustainable resources in his designs, Cardinal also ensured the longevity and permanence of the village in being able to support itself for generations. With this spatial environment, the Oujé Bougoumou are able to envision themselves as powerful agents in their own interests and futures, empowering them and allowing for sustainable cultural development and sovereignty.

[1] “Douglas Cardinal CV”

[2] “New Cree Community”

[3] “Douglas Cardinal CV”, “Minister Kelley and Minister St-Pierre Inaugurate a Cree Cultural Institute in Oujé-Bougoumou”

[4] “Awards of Excellence”

[5] Frenette 1, Stevens and Acland 124

[6] Stevens and Acland 124

[7] “In the past…”

[8] Ibid.

[9] Stevens and Acland 125

[10] Stevens and Acland 126

[11] This number refers to all James Bay Cree, the Ouje Bougoumou were subjected to seven relocations (“In our past…”)

[12] “In the past…”

[13] Stevens and Acland 125

[14] Despite the land never being ceded or surrendered by the Oujé-Bougoumou  (“In the past…”)

[15] “In the past…”, Come Coon 153

[16] “Awards”

[17] Come Coon 155

[18] Come Coon 156

[19] Please note all lowercase bell hooks is the correct postmodernist spelling of this theorist’s name.

[20] hooks 149

[21] hooks 150

[22] Emberly 395

[23] “Differing Worldviews”

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Stevens and Acland 132

[27] Stevens and Acland 133

[28] Cardinal 3

[29] “New Cree Community”

[30] Emberley 388

[31] “Oujé Bougoumou”

[32] “An astiiugamika is constructed by digging a depression into the earth and erecting a skeletal support structure with tree branches. Inside, the branches remain exposed, but outside they are covered with slabs of wood and moss. An opening to the sky is located over the central fire, providing a natural light source. Poles protrude through its apex and point towards the sky. An astiiugamika’s doorway opens to the east, and one walks directly into it by stepping over a short barrier of earth; it does not have any steps or slopes. The dirt floor of this one room house is covered with fresh boughs, which serve as a mattress” (Stevens and Acland 133).

[33] Cardinal 3

[34] Stevens and Acland 125

[35] Stevens and Acland 142

[36] Ibid.

[37] “New Cree Community”


“Awards of Excellence”, 2000. Oujé-Bougoumou community website. Retrieved online from http://www.Oujé.ca/awards/awards.htm#UN

Cardinal, Douglas, 1991. Architectural Concept for Oujé-Bougoumou.

Cardinal, Douglas, January 13, 2012. “Different Worldviews: Aboriginal Centres in Canadian Universities”. Public lecture at Carleton University. Retrieved online from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2wXToJumug

Coon Come, Matthew, 2004.“Survival in the context of Mega-Resource Development: Experiences of the James Bay Crees and the First Nations of Canada” in In the Way of Development: Indigenous Peoples, Life Projects and Globalization, edited by Mario Blser, Harvey A. Feit and Glenn McRae, London/New York: Zed Books/International Development Centre: 153-163. Retrieved online from: http://web.idrc.ca/openebooks/004-7/#page_153

“Douglas Cardinal, Architect Curriculum Vitae”. Retrieved online from http://djcarchitect.com/DCardinal_projects.pdf

Emberley, Julia, 2006. “(un)Housing Aboriginal Possessions in the Virtual Museum:Cultural Practices and Decolonization in civilization.ca and Reservation X” in Journal of Visual Culture, Vol 5(3): 387–410

Frenette, Jacques, 1985. The History of the Chibougamou Cree. Chibougamou: Cree Indian Centre of Chibougamou.

Henderson, Jennifer and Pauline Wakeham, 2009. “Colonial Reckoning, Nation Reconciliation?: Aboriginal Peoples and the Culture of Redress in Canada” in English Studies in Canada, 35 (1): 1-26

Hooks, bell, 1995. Art on My Mind: Visual Politics. New York: The New Press

“In the past…” Oujé-Bougoumou community website. Retrieved online from http://www.Oujé.ca/content/our-story/history.php

“Indigenous Peoples and Sustainable Development in the Canadian Arctic”, 2000. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. Retrieved online from http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100037493

“Minister Kelley and Minister St-Pierre Inaugurate a Cree Cultural Institute in Oujé- Bougoumou.” Nov 15 2011, Canada NewsWire.

“New Cree Community a Model UN Village (Oujé-Bougoumou, Quebec)”, June 20 1995. The Canadian Press: Canadian Newsstand Complete.

“Oujé-Bougoumou: The Place where People Gather” Oujé Bougoumou community website. Retrieved online from http://www.Oujé.ca/content/index.php

Stevens, Caroline, and Joan Reid Acland, 1999. “Building Sovereignty: The Architectural Sources of Oujé-Bougoumou” in Canadian Issues 21: 124-42.

Written by Marianne Williams in her 4th Year at Carleton University in 2012.

2 thoughts on ““Douglas Cardinal and the Oujé Bougoumou Community” Written by Marianne Williams (Carleton University)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s