‘Era of reconciliation’: Building kihciy askiy in Edmonton

janvier 12, 2022
Park People

This contribution from Emily Rendell-Watson is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.



How stakeholders collaborated to design the country’s first urban Indigenous cultural site


Edmonton, or Amiskwaciy Waskahikan, will soon be home to Canada’s first urban Indigenous ceremonial site.

Kihciy askiy, which means “sacred land” in Cree, is located in the heart of Alberta’s capital city on a 4.5-hectare site in Whitemud Park. The park is situated in Edmonton’s river valley and will be a spot where Indigenous communities can gather for ceremonies and sweat lodges, grow medicinal herbs, as well as facilitate learning for non-Indigenous people about Indigenous culture.

“We’re living in the era of reconciliation and as a part of that reconciliation we have to create positive relationships with settlers, so this is going to go a long way,” explained Lewis Cardinal, the project manager for the site from the Indigenous Knowledge & Wisdom Centre (IKWC).

“We deal with issues today like racism and discrimination, but a lot of that is based on ignorance, or simply not knowing people’s traditions and being led by misinformation. This gives an opportunity to provide that direct and personal interaction with (Indigenous culture).”

Cardinal added that it will be equally as important for the site to act as a hub for local Indigenous communities to come together, especially for those who are seeking healing from addictions, abuse, or other trauma.

“This is how we can help to transform these things into something very positive; strengthen people and strengthen relationships,” he said.


Access to cultural activities


The project, which is a partnership between the IKWC and the City of Edmonton, was initially proposed by Cardinal and elder William Campbell in 2006 with the aim to establish a place where Indigenous ceremonies could be held within the city.


Credit: Rendering of the view from the entrance to the pavilion building from the City of Edmonton


The land where kihciy askiy is being built on the west side of Edmonton is on what’s known as the old Fox Farms property, and historically was a place where Indigenous people would camp before entering the city, and pick saskatoons. Oral tradition talks about how across Whitemud Creek to the east of kihciy askiy is a large ochre deposit site, which is significant because ochre was an important part of Indigenous ceremonies in the past — it was mixed with berries and pigments to create colour.

The area was used off and on over the years for ceremonies, including an international Indigenous conference called Healing Our Spirit Worldwide. But each time the Indigenous community wanted to use the land, Cardinal said they had to apply for permission from the city — leading the elders counsel who guided the conference to wonder if it was possible to permanently have access to a plot of land in the urban centre.

Cardinal, Campbell, and a group of elders created a non-profit organization called the Edmonton Indigenous Cultural Resource Counsel to move the initiative forward and began to have more serious discussions with the city about how to make the project a reality.

Some were in favour of hosting ceremonies within the city, while others were against it, so in 2010 the organization decided to gather 120 Indigenous elders from across Alberta to discuss the opportunity over three days. The group also considered what specific ceremonies should be held in cities, and where they should be located.

“The response to the first question was, yes, we need to have ceremonies available to our families and our youth and our community in the urban centres because we know that in the near future, most of our people will be living in urban centres and they need access to these cultural activities and ceremonies in an environment that is embraced by Mother Earth,” Cardinal explained.

“In other words, you can’t have ceremonies in the parking lot of a Walmart.”

The project was eventually taken on by Native Counselling Services of Alberta (NCSA), which kicked off a process of continuous dialogue, and the establishment of the Counsel of Elders to work with the team during the design and construction of the site, as well as provide spiritual and cultural leadership for the project.


Credit photo: kihciy askiy Ground Blessing ceremony, Teresa Marshall


NSCA hosted grand council gatherings for Indigenous spiritual leaders in the Edmonton region at the Alfred H. Savage Centre in May 2015 and again in October 2018 to review and approve of the concept design, go over ceremony protocols for the site, and broadly discuss ceremonial and spiritual needs of the Indigenous community in the region.

In 2018, NCSA underwent a structural reorganization and the decision was made to move the project over to IKWC, recalls Cardinal, which is when he was asked to manage it on a full-time basis.

“The elders have always taught me that you bear responsibility for your dreams and visions. So if you’re bringing this dream and vision forward for yourself, or for a group of people, you still have that commitment to it. So it was quite lovely to get back in and start to work with the elders and bring it to this point,” Cardinal said.

One of those elders is Howard Mustus, chair of kihciy askiy’s Counsel of Elders, and traditional knowledge keeper. He said he hopes the project will help to minimize racism, as non-Indigenous people absorb and accept Indigenous traditions and culture.

“We encourage non-Indigenous people to come in and sit with us in our sacred circles and to learn more about indigenous law. That stems from the sanctioning of spirituality, which is very important to our people. That is the ultimate power and authority that dictates how we conduct ourselves and how we function as a society for caring and sharing in a holistic manner,” said Mustus.


Credit photo: kihciy askiy Ground Blessing ceremony, Teresa Marshall


A ground blessing (instead of a groundbreaking ceremony) was hosted in September 2021 to mark the beginning of construction and honour the relationship between all the stakeholders involved in the creation of kihciy askiy, which has a budget of $4.5 million. It was also an opportunity to “seek blessing from Mother Earth in allowing construction to take place,” which involved tying ribbons to a tree to signify connections and respect to the earth.

Construction on the land, led by Delnor Construction, officially began in mid-November and is expected to take 18 to 24 months to complete.


Engagement and collaboration


The relationships formed through the process have been key to kihciy askiy’s success thus far, including influencing how the site was developed.

Nav Sandhu, program manager with the City of Edmonton, said the social procurement aspect involved considering how potential contractors engage their teams or sub-trades to incorporate Indigenous communities. That meant hiring an Indigenous human resources coordinator and working with Indigenous-owned businesses to tackle the mechanical and landscaping aspects of the project.

“Social procurement is relatively new when you look at the construction industry, and it’s something that I think that we’re moving aggressively towards. It’s great to see the city be a leader in ensuring that the partners and the people that are going to be using it have a voice at the table to say (what’s going to benefit them),” said Sandhu. “Projects like these, where the social impact is so significant, take a lot of collaboration.”

The development process also involved getting consensus from representatives of the more than 50 Indigenous communities who will be able to use the site and adjusting several parkland policies to allow for development in Edmonton’s river valley and access to the area for Indigenous cultural activities.

As the owner of the land, the city will construct two buildings on kihciy askiy, which will house changing rooms, washrooms, a small classroom to host land-based education, a meeting space, and a storage facility. There will also be an outdoor amphitheatre.

Cardinal said the goal is to naturalize the space and “not make a huge footprint on the site.”

There will also be a teepee area, with enough space for 10-12 teepees or Métis trapper tents, to hold storytelling ceremonies.


Credit photo: kihciy askiy Tipi and site v2, Teresa Marshall


Two fire pit structures will be able to support two sweat lodges simultaneously, with space for up to eight in total. Sweat lodges offer a ceremonial space that’s integral to Indigenous culture, which is important because the Indigenous groups in the Edmonton region have many different traditions surrounding the purification practice.

“Sweat lodge holders have been taught differently from their ancestors, or the ones who’ve transferred that ceremony to them. So we have to make sure that there is accessibility for all of those users,” Cardinal explained.

Once kihciy askiy is complete, Indigenous people in Edmonton won’t have to travel out of the city to Paul Band, or Enoch or Alexander First Nation to participate in a sweat.

The third element will be a medicine garden, building off of the traditional medicines accessible in the river valley, which is one of the reasons the site was chosen. It will be used as a teaching area, as well as a place to harvest things like sage, tobacco, sweetgrass, and more for elders.

Finally, a multi-purpose space will offer an alternative locale for Indigenous ceremonies and other traditional structures that may need to be built for some First Nation traditions.

“It will also be the place where we can do some teaching for non-Indigenous people, to welcome them to our ceremonies and to give them an introduction to our Indigenous worldviews and our history. It’s a great opportunity to create those interfaces to teach people about things,” explained Cardinal, who added that there will also be what they’re calling an “open program” where sweat lodges will be open to the public.

“The whole site is intended to foster good relations, help Indigenous people reconnect to the land and the teachings that come from the land, as well as to their culture, traditions, and history.”

Indigenous organizations and agencies will also be able to use the site to deliver their own cultural programming.

Cardinal said the only other park site he knows of that is remotely similar to kihciy askiy is Jasper National Park’s Cultural Use Area, which is an area developed by the Jasper Indigenous Forum and Parks Canada for Indigenous partners to reconnect with the land, and host cultural learning and ceremonies.

The site, which has been used since June 2013, is not open to the general public.


‘A safe haven’


Once construction on kihciy askiy is complete, IKWC will run the site. People will be able to access it by various means of transportation, including bus, which was an important factor in solidifying the site location, said Cardinal.

Cardinal, Mustus, and Sandu all envision the site as an important pillar for the Indigenous community in terms of offering a way to uphold traditions within the Edmonton region. The partnerships that were key to developing the site will continue, and new ones will hopefully be formed between the Indigenous communities who use it and non-Indigenous people who are eager to learn.

“Kihciy askiy offers a safe haven for the community. I don’t think it’s going to be the last (project of this kind) — I think you’re gonna see a trend of these in the coming years … to bridge that gap,” Sandhu said.

“I think this is a significant step towards truth and reconciliation that needed to happen.”





About Emily Rendell-Watson

Emily RendellWatson is an Edmonton-based multimedia journalist who is currently the Editorial Lead & Community Manager of Taproot Edmonton, a publication that seeks to help its community understand itself better.

She writes about tech innovation, urban issues, climate change, and anything else that comes across her desk. When she’s not chasing a story, you can find her coaching speed skating or adventuring in the backcountry with her rescue dog, Abby. 



This contribution from Emily Rendell-Watson is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks.  The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.


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