Accommodation as diverse as the land

Canada is the second-largest country in the world, and its landscapes are stunningly diverse. It is home to the treeless tundra of the Far North and the temperate rainforests of the West. The awe-inspiring peaks of the Rocky Mountains spill into the flat grasslands of the Prairies and the lake regions of the East lead to the rolling green-hilled coastline of the Maritimes.

Each Indigenous group who traditionally lived across the vast landscape now known as Canada faced their own challenges and opportunities when it came to surviving and thriving in often extreme conditions. The dwellings they built were in direct response to those challenges and provide a glimpse into how they lived.

Keeping warm and dry in the Far North

No trees can grow in Canada’s Far North. The Inuit, traditional inhabitants of the Arctic, moved from place to place to follow migrating caribou and hunt for seals. They had to make do with the building materials they could find in the harsh, volatile conditions — so, in the winter months, they used snow to make igloos. These architectural wonders have a unique dome-shaped design that blended physics and thermodynamics to create optimal shelter. When the weather turned warmer, the Inuit followed the caribou migration and lived in Tupiqs: easily transportable tents made of seal or caribou skin stretched over a driftwood frame. During milder months, when they could stay in a location for a slightly longer period of time, the Inuit built Qammaqs: semi-permanent structures with a circular wall of stone, grass sod, or blocks of snow, held up by a framework usually made from animal bones covered with animal skin.

Homes on the move

Further south, many First Nations and Métis had a similarly nomadic lifestyle, following migrating bison for parts of the year. In the central and western parts of Canada, Indigenous Peoples lived in teepees: cone-shaped tents, traditionally made from animal skins stretched over wooden poles with a hole at the top for smoke to escape. These versatile structures were first transported by dogs, and after the 1800s, by horses, as communities migrated around their traditional lands.

Wigwams, the traditional dwellings of First Nations communities in the eastern half of North America, were portable, so hunting parties and travelling families could move their shelter to a new location. Shaped like a dome or cone, with a smoke hole at the top, wigwams were typically made out of wood poles, bark, and animal hides. Today, teepees and wigwams are mostly used for ceremonial or tourism purposes.

Settling into permanent structures

On the West Coast and in parts of what is now called Ontario, thanks to readily available food all year round, First Nations communities typically settled in villages with permanent structures. Many built longhouses: long and narrow structures that were home to several related families. Longhouses were also used for storage and had wood fire hearths for warmth.

In other parts of what is now known as British Columbia, First Nations communities built bighouses from cedar wood. Adorned with towering totem poles, these large structures housed several families and served important ceremonial purposes. Today, some longhouses and bighouses are still used as important gathering places for ceremonial, political and community events.

In the plateau region of modern-day British Columbia and Alberta, many First Nations lived in pit houses. Pit houses are log-framed structures built over an excavated floor, covered with an insulating layer of earth. Once grass grows on the earthen roof, the pit house appears to be a living part of the landscape. Emblematic of local Indigenous knowledge and practices that build in harmony with the land, many archaeologists believe the pit house is North America’s oldest type of constructed dwelling.

Adaptable Métis accommodations

Depending on their lifestyle, Métis Peoples lived in both temporary and permanent dwellings. On bison hunts and trade expeditions, the Métis lived in teepees similar to the First Nations on the plains. Later, many Métis also used canvas “trapper tents” that had been brought over by the Europeans. When they settled into permanent homes, the Métis lived in log houses. These basic square log cabins were made out of rounded logs with notched ends. The roofs were often flat, with mud and hay added to the outside for extra insulation. Log houses in Métis villages were usually built in a circle, with the largest building — often used for dances and town meetings — in the middle.

More than just a roof

The Indigenous dwellings that remain today or that have been rebuilt are no longer used for accommodation. However, these historic dwellings provide a tangible link to the past, and often have important spiritual significance. Many continue to be used for ceremonial, traditional and educational purposes — and are often available for tourists to visit.