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A Home Made for Indigenous Peoples, by Indigenous Peoples

NUQO Modular and the Squamish Nation won the Built Environment Award for a housing project that prioritizes vulnerable Sḵwx̱wú7mesh residents.

Josh Kozelj 8 Jul 2024The Tyee

Josh Kozelj is a freelance journalist and was the inaugural Hummingbird fellow with The Tyee.

The building may look like it’s made solely of concrete and wood, but it’s woven together with intention and gratitude.

Nestled between the Squamish River and the towering Coast Mountains range in the Lower Mainland, Esḵéḵxwi7ch tl’a Sp’áḵw’us Place is a 27-unit development that provides housing exclusively for vulnerable Sḵwx̱wú7mesh residents on the nation’s territory.

On the side of the building are four blue diamonds, stacked on top of each other in delicate balance as though holding each other in place.

It’s a feature that Rory Richards, CEO of NUQO Modular, a female-led, Indigenous-owned company that designed the building in tandem with the Squamish Nation, says is supposed to remind endangered residents — women, children and Elders at risk of experiencing homelessness — that they are never alone.

“We wanted the building to be wrapped in protection, comfort and ancestor love,” Richards said. “It’s being heralded as the future of Indigenous housing: culturally informed, culturally proud housing.”

Many First Nations communities — who are already 23 times more likely to experience homelessness than non-Indigenous folks — struggle to find adequate housing, let alone homes that reflect their history.

A 2023 study by the Assembly of First Nations and Indigenous Services Canada found that $135 billion is needed to close the housing gap disadvantaging First Nations communities by 2030. More than one in six Indigenous people live in overcrowded housing, according to Statistics Canada.

Typically, whenever housing is created on Indigenous reserves, it is done without considering the climate and cultural expression, Richards said. That lack of awareness led NUQO to create a building that Indigenous Peoples would be proud to call home.

“Most of it has been dragged and dropped on reserve.... Our buildings are really different; they have a proud, bold, Indigenous expression to them,” said Richards, who is shíshálh, or Coast Salish, and founded NUQO Modular in 2020.

“We went to great lengths to ensure that the buildings didn’t feel institutional.”

NUQO Modular’s work was recognized last month with the Built Environment Award at the 2024 Land Awards, an event held biannually by the Real Estate Foundation of BC to honour projects that create more sustainable, inclusive and resilient communities.

A beacon of hope for vulnerable people

A lack of suitable housing on reserves leads many Indigenous people to look for homes and jobs outside of their community.

But for residents who do stay on reserve, overcrowded housing may make it hard to flee abusive relationships or other difficult circumstances.

Women and young families, specifically, often bear the brunt of those situations, Richards said, so Esḵéḵxwi7ch tl’a Sp’áḵw’us Place — “the gathering place of eagles” — was created to serve as a safe place for them.

“Women that are in unhealthy or abusive relationships aren’t able to leave because there’s no place for them and their kids to leave,” Richards said. “They’re trapped in these domestic situations.”

Funding for the project came from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.’s rapid housing initiative, a program that aimed to create permanent and affordable housing for vulnerable people across the country.

NUQO Modular helped the nation apply for the funding and came up with the initial concept and budget before securing funding in 2022. The building officially opened one year later.

A five-storey white building stands on a city block. One side is painted to reflect interwoven triangles.
NUQO Modular’s work was recognized last month with the Built Environment Award at the 2024 Land Awards. Photo submitted.

Hiy̓ám̓ Housing, a non-profit arm of the Squamish Nation that looks after building management, vets and interviews residents looking to move in. Priority is given to women and children at risk of homelessness. Families, Elders, people with disabilities and LGBTQ2S+ folks are next on the list, according to the organization.

When NUQO and the nation were awarded the grant, it was a breakthrough moment for the female-led company, Richards says. Construction is still heavily dominated by men, as women make up roughly 13 per cent of the industry in Canada. That figure is even more dire when it comes to construction jobs in B.C., where women comprise only 4.5 per cent of the workforce in the province.

The contract gave NUQO an opportunity to work on a major project in its first two years of existence, and redefine what it means to live on reserve.

“It was very difficult for us to get our first jobs,” Richards said. “It’s hard for women to break it, it’s hard for women to have equal opportunity.”

A group of women in hard hats and visi vests stand in a dirt area surrounded by a metal construction fence.
NUQO Modular is a female-led, Indigenous-owned company that designs Indigenous housing in BC. ‘It was very difficult for us to get our first jobs,’ says CEO Richards. ‘It’s hard for women to break it, it’s hard for women to have equal opportunity.’ Photo submitted.

However, NUQO’s design plan and ability to pivot stood out in the eyes of the funder. The building, which exceeds the national energy code, is in a flood plain — a fact that NUQO did not take into consideration when they were designing the building in 2021.

That same year, historic floods ravaged the Fraser Valley and B.C.’s Interior, and NUQO decided to revamp the building to make it flood-ready. They converted the lower floors to an office and amenity space, while leaving housing on higher floors.

“CMHC, when they walked the project themselves after completion, they said, ‘This is one of the nicest projects we’ve ever done,’” Richards said.

NUQO also incorporated cedar walls in every unit as a nod to its historical significance for the nation and many Indigenous Peoples.

“We used it to build our homes, our clothes, our medicine, regalia, rituals,” Richards said. “This was our way of expressing our gratitude to the nation for giving us this privilege of building their homes.”

Moving forward, NUQO is looking to become an even larger presence in the construction community. They already have pilot projects in the works with the province to build modular child-care centres and housing for first responders.

Following their collaboration with the Squamish Nation, they hope to continue changing the stereotypical perception of Indigenous housing on reserve. And encourage other housing developers to do the same.

“As Indigenous folks, we’re used to getting the absolute minimum,” Richards said. “So to see something that is so intentional is setting the bar for all of us.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Urban Planning

This article is part of a Tyee Presents initiative. Tyee Presents is the special sponsored content section within The Tyee where we highlight contests, events and other initiatives that are either put on by us or by our select partners. The Tyee does not and cannot vouch for or endorse products advertised on The Tyee. We choose our partners carefully and consciously, to fit with The Tyee’s reputation as B.C.’s Home for News, Culture and Solutions. Learn more about Tyee Presents here.

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