Tucked away at the edge of Chinatown in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the existence of Skwachàys Lodge and Gallery passes relatively unnoticed by most Vancouverites. At first glance, the antiquated lodge appears to blend in unobtrusively with the surrounding historic buildings. The Victorian era façade, a relic of the former Pender Hotel, was preserved at the behest of the city’s heritage group. Designed by architect W. T. Whiteway in 1913, the neoclassical façade is contrasted by the longhouse, designed by the late Canadian architect Joe Wai. A 40-foot Dreamweaver story pole crown the building, courtesy of self-taught Coast Salish artist Francis Horn Sr. The result is a building which incorporates both components of Victorian architecture, as well as local aboriginal elements and program.
Since the initial realisation of the Skwachàys Lodge and Gallery in 2012, Joe Wai’s project has undergone several phases.
The initial conception for Skwachàys (pronounced skwatch-eyes - the traditional Squamish name for spring water where the lodge is built), began in 2002. The Vancouver Native Housing Society(VNHS) saw the need for a temporary, affordable dwelling space for out-of-town First Nations peoples and their families to reside in during medical treatment in the city. A total of 18 units were constructed for this endeavor. Additionally, 24 apartments were provided to accommodate Vancouverites at risk of homelessness.
Adorning the walls and ceiling of the Smudge Room is a painted forest which appears beneath the sky. In keeping with traditional aboriginal practice, sacred plants are burned here purification ceremony. Meanwhile, located in the rooftop garden, the Sweat Lodge is a domed structure, composed of interwoven willow branches which symbolise Mother Nature’s womb. Together, these features help to instil a sense of community in a new environment, far from home.
However, demand for the Lodge turned out to be less than what the VNHS anticipated.
During the initial months following the grand opening, Skwachàys Lodge saw only a 10 percent occupancy rate, while it would require at least 50 to break even.
The solution? The Lodge found purpose in 2014 as Vancouver’s first Aboriginal Boutique Hotel after temporarily shutting down for a few months earlier in the year. 18 rooms, formerly used to house First Nations patients and their families were converted into a set of hotel rooms each uniquely designed by a team of aboriginal artists and interior designers. Each room features original native Canadian carvings, paintings, fabric and furniture. The project, run by VNHS offers guests of the hotel the opportunity to attend workshops with the aboriginal artists, eat aboriginal inspired food, and even try the Sweat Lodge.
One hundred percent of the proceeds go towards supporting the 24 aboriginal artists who continue to live in the remaining suites. The Lodge also provides the opportunity for the struggling artists to display their work in the Urban Aboriginal Fair Trade Gallery on the main floor. Since this component of the Lodge opened, sales in the artwork (which includes bentwood boxes, aboriginal masks, as well as jewellery and apparel) have surged. There is even an area on the sidewalk which has been retrofitted with glass, permitting passersby to glimpse the artists’ workshop below and follow their progress.
While the Skwachàys Lodge proved unsuccessful in its initial intention, it ultimately found its success. The Lodge is an arresting amalgamation of historic and modern, and it combines both European and Canadian Aboriginal elements.
Although Vancouver's Skwachàys Healing Lodge did not fulfil its initial purpose as a temporary housing service for visiting aboriginal peoples awaiting treatment in the city, the dynamic lodge now serves a new and equally important destiny. Skwachàys Lodge is an experiential platform which showcases First Nations art and culture to visitors in Vancouver, fostering a greater awareness of their culture both at home and abroad. It provides an opportunity for artists from one of Canada's most marginalised groups to live, and to create, display, and even sell their unique and captivating art.
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All photographs courtesy of Craig Minielly
This article was researched and written by Sonia Jin, an undergraduate student of Environmental Design, University of British Columbia.