Healing Heritage: A Sweat Lodge at Health Canada

Case Study prepared by Laura Curtis, Carleton University

The Iskotew Sweat Lodge at Health Canada Headquarters, Tunney’s Pasture, Ottawa

Keywords: Socio-cultural Sustainability, Sweat Lodge, Health Canada, Community Stewardship, Federal Heritage, and Holistic Health.

LESSONS LEARNED: The inclusion of indigenous knowledge of healing within Health Canada’s iconic Classified Federal Heritage Building, the Brooke Claxton Building, invites community healing and stewardship through a more holistic and sustainable approach. The Iskotew Sweat Lodge offers a safe space to learn, understand, appreciate and share indigenous traditional knowledge and overcome cultural differences with the goal of wholesome health. The combination of the participatory nature of the indigenous sweat lodge (Cohen, 2006, p 136), along with its all-encompassing views of healing as a whole, rather than just the physical (Bruchac, 1993, p 107), creates a healing space intended for both individual and community recovery. The superimposition of the sacred sweat lodge on a national landmark of health and federal power, on unceded Algonquin Anishinaabe land, allows for a type of open dialogue between the two histories and cultures to possibly create a more inclusive heritage narrative. This allows for both people and whole communities to heal from cultural divides, isolation, alienation, ignorance and discrimination. The dynamic between the Iskotew Lodge and the Brooke Claxton Building promotes communication and understanding for future generations, as well as cultural regeneration, which empowers cultural and social sustainability within the community.

Yet despite all this, the Iskotew Lodge is not considered as part of the heritage of Health Canada or the Brooke Claxton Building, leaving this community stewardship and the embedded indigenous heritage vulnerable to change in ways that may not be monitored for socio-cultural sustainability and holistic health. If we consider the intention behind holistic health approaches from an indigenous perspective, that would equally include linking human health with the environment’s health, including our urban relationship with the earth. “All life is accountable to natural law: cycles are natural, and reciprocity – the balance of taking and giving – is essential to maintain the equilibrium of humans with the environment,” and as such, everything from the health of our bodies, minds, spirits, communities and buildings all relate back to the health of our nature (LaDuke, 1992, para. 7). Therefore, this case shows a good start to a wholesome approach to health and regeneration through heritage, yet it has potential to become more sustainable through a truly holistic look at what healing a community means according to indigenous knowledge.

PRESENTATION: Presented December 1st, the following PowerPoint presentation outlines the case study at its preliminary stage. It attempts to position the Iskotew Sweat Lodge within the Classified Federal Heritage Building, the Brooke Claxton building, as a good case study to look at how heritage sites can be used to encourage community and cultural healing.

Spaces of Community & Cultural Recovery

Brooke Claxton Building (highlighted in red) & Outline of Tunney’s Pasture federal campus, Ottawa, ON. Google Maps 2017. https://www.google.ca/maps/place/Tunney’s+Pasture,+Ottawa,+ON/@45.4058276,-75.7382388,1359m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x4cce0416489c912f:0xaaa86106853d850e!8m2!3d45.4049818!4d-75.7384897

DESCRIPTION: Situated at 70 Colombine Driveway, Ottawa, the Brooke Claxton Building, the location of Canada’s Health Canada Headquarters, marks the landscape, looming over the federal campus, Tunney’s Pasture. In 2002, Metis Architect Douglas Cardinal installed an indigenous Sweat Lodge known as the Iskotew Healing Lodge (“Iskotew” meaning “the fire within” in Cree) in the Brooke Claxton Building (Douglas Cardinal Architects, 2002, para. 1). The lodge

“provides an opportunity for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal employees of Health Canada, and other government departments, to gain a greater appreciation and understanding of traditional Aboriginal cultures and practices,”(Douglas Cardinal Architects, 2002, para. 1).

The Lodge also offers workshops, traditional teachings, healing, Elder consultations, storytelling, and craft circles in order to bring awareness and support to employees and to those in charge of caring for the Aboriginal community, in hopes of helping them face workplace challenges that may arise from cultural tension (Government of Canada, 2011, para. 5). That being said, the Lodge is also open to the community as a space of cultural healing, and understanding, providing a resource centre with videos, books and other materials on loan. It hosts Elders from all across Canada in addition to two local Elders (Ice, 2013, p 23). Traditionally, the Healing/Sweat Lodge is exemplified through the “healing of the whole person – not just alleviating physical symptoms as does western medicine” (Bruchac, 1993, p 107). Thus, the Iskotew Healing Lodge weds the traditional knowledge of Indigenous concepts of holistic health in the federal context of a nation’s health headquarters.

The term “health” is defined here according to the agreed upon concept by all governments of Canada, First Nations People, Inuit and Metis in the Blueprint on Aboriginal Health: A 10-Year Transformative Plan. They agree that the term health “embraces a holistic approach encompassing the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual well-being of people living in harmony with well-functioning social systems in a healthful environment” (Government of Canada, 2005, p. 4). This definition encompasses the more nuanced perspective of health that is founded in Indigenous traditional knowledge, and has been accepted as a more sustainable means of looking at a community’s health by its wholesome intentions.

Additionally, I will use the terms “Aboriginal,” “Native,” and “Indigenous” fairly interchangeably due to the variety of the use of these terms across my sources. My sources stem from different times and places, and thus the terminology changes frequently, so to make things less confusing they shall all have the same meaning in the context of this case study.

Designated as a Classified Federal Heritage Building in 2005, the Brooke Claxton Building is nineteen stories tall and sits on a large podium at the ground level. Designed in the Modern International Style, its architecture contains a few hints of early Brutalism when it was built in the third phase of Tunney’s Pasture construction between 1961-1964 (FHBRO, 2006, pp. 1-2). Two important Canadian architectural firms, the first being Balharrie, Helmer and Morin from Ottawa, and the other being Greenspoon, Freelander and Dunne from Montreal, designed the building (FHBRO, 2006, pp. 2). The building’s first two floors house the Minister and Deputy Minister s of Health, and the rest of the floors contain mostly office space (HOK, 2008, 15). However, for better accessibility, the podium (or basement) floor also houses a cafeteria, fitness centre, print shop, a Health Canada Crisis Centre, and the Iskotew Healing Lodge (FHBRO, 2006, pp. 2).


Brooke Claxton Building and Tunney’s Pasture:

Tunney’s Pasture original construction in 1965. 70 Colombine Driveway, Ottawa, Ontario. geoOttawa 2017. http://maps.ottawa.ca/geoottawa/.

  • 1867 – Anthony Tunney, an Irishman, settled on the site and occupied the land for cow grazing from the Ottawa River up to current day Parkdale Ave (Kalman, 1983, 149).
  • 1950s – Tunney sold his land to the federal government, who built here fleeing the downtown core in fear of nuclear attack from the Cold war (Kalman, 1983, 149).
  • 1961-1964 – Construction of the Tunney’s Pasture Campus (FHBRO, 2006, p. 1).
  • 1990 – 1995 – Modern modifications to the building, including reconfiguration of floors to meet space requirements and renovations for universal access, as well as updated interior finishes and new mechanical/electrical systems (HOK, 2008, 25).
  • 2000 – 2002 – The Iskotew Healing Lodge is completed (Douglas Cardinal Architects, 2002, para. 1).
  • 2003 – Iskotew Healing Lodge won an award from the Wolf Project for excellence in promoting respect & understanding between cultures and race. (Wolf Project, n.d., para. 7).
  • 2005 – Brooke Claxton Building designated as a Classified Federal Heritage Building (Historical Places Canada, 2005, para. 1).
  • 2015 – The HOK Architectural firm won competition to re-develop Tunney’s Pasture as Canada’s first mixed-use development lead by the federal government (HOK, n.d., para. 3).

Health Canada and Indigenous Health Services:

  • 17th Century onwards – European contact with Indigenous peoples leads to increased dissemination of disease (Waldram, 2006, 49).
  • 1867– British North American Act transferred the responsibility of managing the Native population and the lands reserved for them to the federal government (Waldram, 2006, 173).
  • 1904 – Department of Indian Affairs appoint a General Medical Superintendent to begin medical programs and to develop health facilities in reserves (Government of Canada, 2007, para. 1).
  • 1945 – of National Health & Welfare is established and begins providing medical services to Aboriginal peoples (Government of Canada, 2007, para. 2).
  • 1974 – Policy of the Federal Government Concerning Indian Health Services: “Government is under no obligation to provide health services to Indigenous people, but will make such services more readily available for remote places and give financial aid” (Government of Canada, 2007, para. 3).
  • 1979 – Indian Health Policy: Recognition of community importance to build strong relations between Indigenous people and the federal government in order to provide better Healthcare systems (Government of Canada, 2007, para. 4).
  • 1980 – Medical Services Branch & the Strategic Policy, Planning & Analysis Directory: Marks the beginning of transferring of control of health services to Aboriginal people (Government of Canada, 2007, para. 5).
  • 2000 – Medical Services Branch renamed “First Nations and Inuit Health Branch,” who now work on the site as part of Health Canada (Government of Canada, 2007, para. 6).


Organizations & Private Users:

  • Health Canada & Federal Government of Canada: Current and past occupants/owners of the site who govern the use of the site and buildings, such as federal employees from Health Canada and other departments, including The First Nations and Inuit Health Branch (Douglas Cardinal Architect, 2002, para. 1).
  • Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health: Representatives supported the Iskotew Lodge as a recipient for the Wolf Project Award in 2003 (The Wolf Project, n.d., Para. 9).
  • Odawa Native Friendship Centre: Representatives supported the Iskotew Lodge as a recipient for the Wolf Project Award in 2003 (The Wolf Project, n.d., Para. 9).


  • HOK Architects: Architectural firm hired to study the building’s performance and vulnerability to climate change in 2008 (HOK, 2008, p. 25), and come up with a plan for approaching these vulnerabilities to the building’s environmental resilience. In 2015 they were responsible for preparing a guidance plan for the upcoming Tunney’s Pasture 25-year redevelopment plan (HOK, n.d., para 3).
  • Douglas Cardinal Architects: Architect that designed the Sweat Lodge in the Brooke Claxton Building (Douglas Cardinal Architect, 2002, p 1).

Local and Public Users:

  • Peace Flame Drum Circle: Regular users of the Iskotew Lodge, who use the lodge to gather and promote equality and peace (Ice, 2013, p 23).
  • Local indigenous people and Indigenous communities across Canada: They are the Elders, employees and regular users of the Iskotew Lodge. All nations and religions are welcomed to join the Lodge for holistic healing, including non-employees or non-aboriginal people (Ice, 2013, p 23).
  • Local residents and businesses: The building and Tunney’s Pasture campus is surrounded by housing and small businesses. As such, the campus and its amenities are a source of employment, clientele and health resources for local people.
  • Local Universities and schools: As a local resource of indigenous traditional knowledge, and due to its nature of promoting understanding and holistic healing concept, it has potential to attract the interest of scholarly users and researchers from the medical field, cultural studies, and indigenous & Canadian studies from local Universities and schools.

All things considered, the federal government predominantly controls the site, and while this allows a certain level of protection to the Brooke Claxton Building as a classified federal heritage building, it also isolates the Iskotew Healing Lodge. Additionally, as a priority falls to federal use, it can be difficult for the public to know and reach the services of the sweat lodge. Consequently there is a conflict on the level of accessibility between federal users and public stakeholders.

HERITAGE: Designated as a Classified Federal Heritage Building in 2005, the following discussion of its heritage values is based on the FHBRO heritage character statement (FHBRO, 2006, pp. 1-2). The building is a result of the federal government’s attempts to consolidate their departmental administrative buildings with new Modernist building styles and move out from the downtown core to build their presence in the suburbs of the Capital (FHBRO, 2006, pp. 1).

Historical Values: The site commemorates achievements in Canadian history of health services by demonstrating the role of the federal government at ensuring health standards in the postwar period. It is associated with the Canada Pension Plan, Medicare, Health Canada Act, and Canadian Assistance Plan. Other historical associations with the building are to three important figures in Health Canada’s history: The Honourable Judy LaMarsh, the Honourable Marc Lalonde, and the Honourable Monique Bégin. Also, the Brooke Claxton Building is the first skyscraper to break the height zoning restrictions of 150ft/46m for Ottawa’s downtown in order to preserve the Peace Tower as a landmark (FHBRO, 2006, pp. 1-2).

B. Butler. 2012. Brooke Claxton Building front facade, Ottawa, ON. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABrooke_Claxton_Building_from_the_front_2.jpg

Architectural Values: The architectural style of the building marks a time when the federal government was rebuilding its departmental administrative buildings according to concepts of international modernism in order to unify and modernize their structures. There was also a small amount of early Brutalism embedded in the architecture, which is visible in the textural detail in the concrete. There was a focus on using qualitative materials to express its materiality and it emphasized the image of Tunney’s Pasture as a federal presence (FHBRO, 2006, p. 2). It is equally significant due to its functional design & craftsmanship as a modern building. Some of its defining characteristics are: Elegance, richness, mass, composition based on scale, balance and quality (FHBRO, 2006, p. 3). Moreover, its functional design works effectively for an office tower due to its simple floor plan with flexible and functional layouts (FHBRO, 2006, p. 2).

Environmental Values: The Brooke Claxton Building has a distinct relationship with its environment. It stands as both the landmark and focal point of Tunney’s Pasture and its surrounding community. It is also a landmark to the West of Ottawa as it is the first building to surpass the height restriction, which in fact helped other buildings to break the zoning restrictions as well (FHBRO, 2006, pp. 1-2). This allowed Robert Campeau to populate downtown Ottawa with taller skyscrapers like the Place de Ville on Sparks St., ultimately shaping the urban environment we know today and its skyline (Kalman, 1983, 149).

Indigenous Heritage and Value: In addition to the values cited in the FHBRO heritage character statement, given that the site stands on unceded Algonquin territory, the presence of the Iskotew Lodge and its imbedded indigenous traditional knowledge and values represent an unacknowledged indigenous heritage in the Classified Federal Heritage Building. In fact, the heritage designation for the Brooke Claxton Building was recognized three years after the installation of the Iskotew Healing Lodge in 2002, yet there is no mention of it or its significance in the Statement of Significance (2005) or in the FHBRO Heritage Character Statement (2006). This is a lack of acknowledgement of the traditional knowledge, indigenous heritage and significance of the traditional concept of a holistic health as an intrinsic part of the nation’s populations and histories.

Just as the building’s 1960’s International Modernist Style architecture holds significance due to its design and function, the design of the Iskotew Lodge also holds strong architectural values to consider. Its architect, Douglas Cardinal, is one of Canada’s most acknowledged architects with experience designing spaces of learning and cultural understanding, including the National Museum of History, the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health, and the Ojigkwanong at Carleton University (Douglas Cardinal Architect, 2002, p 1). According to Native ideology, nature is powerful, and “Native American healers recognize that specific healing powers as well as the plants and animals that embody them, reside in specific locations” (Cohen, 2006, p 112). Thus the location chosen for the Iskotew Sweat Lodge holds some significance in the Lodge’s capacity to heal.

Iskotew Healing Lodge, close up of the interior’s centre, Brooke Claxton Building basement, Ottawa, ON. Douglas Cardinal Architect 2002.

Additionally, there is a historical importance to the Lodge that must be seen as significant and relevant to the Brooke Claxton Building’s Historical Values. In the Blueprint on Aboriginal Health: A 10-Year Transformative Plan, they state that First Nations, Inuit, and Metis have “unique cultures, traditions and relationships with federal –provincial-territorial governments,” and that “their social and cultural distinctions are a defining feature of Canada and form an important context for cooperative efforts to improve their wellbeing” (Government of Canada, 2005, p. 2). Furthermore, they recognize the Blueprint as a “historic moment” in the history of health in Canada as it stands for a historic shift in the care for indigenous populations, so considering this with the significant context of the Iskotew Healing Lodge in the heritage building of Health Canada’s Headquarters is valuable (Government of Canada, 2005, pp. 24-25).


Environmental sustainability: In a study done by HOK architects in 2008, the Brooke Claxton Building was found to be incredibly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Of the greatest concern was the inaccessibility of the structure compared to contemporary standards, the potential damage to the building’s envelope, the overworking of the inefficient cooling systems, and the taxing effect this has on the electrical systems (HOK, 2008, 41). Thus the building is inefficient and is susceptible to the rising temperatures and precipitation. The HOK firm’s proposed solution was to remove the focus of working on one component at a time, and to shift to a more interrelated systematic approach that “could prove beneficial in terms of planning and responding to changes in climate that affect numerous building components/systems simultaneously” (HOK, 2008, 44).

Consideration of indigenous perspectives of stewardship and natural balance might provide further insight to making the building more environmentally sustainable. For instance, the indigenous concept of “continuous habitation of place, an intimate understanding of the relationship between humans and the ecosystem and of the need to maintain this balance” (Laduke, 1992, para. 8) and value systems such as this have allowed for indigenous societies to maintain themselves in sustainable ways. If the HOK’s systematic approach is informed by indigenous values of continuation and balance, then more sustainable solutions may be considered.

Socio-Cultural sustainability: The inclusion of an indigenous sweat lodge in an urban setting helps Health Canada employees learn and get a better understanding and appreciation of indigenous traditional knowledge and views on health, which in turn allows them to offer more comprehensive health services to the native population (Douglas Cardinal Architect, 2002, p 1). It encourages and facilitates cultural understanding and promotes social-cultural regeneration through participation, which is a common value in native counseling and mediation, as it combats isolation and demoralization through supportive bonds (Cohen, 2006, pp 136 – 137). For aboriginal individuals who left the reserves in hopes of employment, education and other opportunities, this Lodge provides them with a space to reconnect with tradition, culture, and the aboriginal community. Given that many aboriginal people have lost their traditional knowledge of healing over the years of conflict with the government, this addition can be read as an attempt to unify these differences and re-introduce traditional aboriginal culture, values and practices in the community. Elders from across Canada are invited to host events for a week or two during the year, which sets a national stage for the dissemination of socio-cultural healing and understanding. In short, it promotes a sense of stewardship for community health and relationships.

However, despite the Lodge being promoted as holistic community health for the Canadian and Indigenous population through informing those who provide national health care, the irony is that it is not that readily accessible to public users. Due to its federal status, guards and security gates control access to the building, and thus the public must make arrangements in advance to enter and use the space. Additionally, it is not well known among the public as there is not much easily accessible information about the Lodge’s services since the Government of Canada’s website has the information embedded in archived material (Government of Canada, 2011, 4).

Economic sustainability: The assessment here focused on economic sustainability as a dimension of employment. Health Canada became known as one of Canada’s best diversity employers in 2012, and one of the initiatives used to increase diversity was the installation of the Iskotew Sweat Lodge (Government of Canada, 2011, para. 1). The lodge allowed for aboriginal employees to be better accommodated in the workplace and allows a better diffusion of indigenous cultural knowledge among workers to help. In addition, the on-site resource of information is easily accessible for employees, and the collection of helpful media, such as videos, books, audio and other materials are available on loan (Ice, 2013, p 23). This provides the opportunity for economic and professional growth as well as work-place mediation and resource accessibility to create a sustainable workplace.

MEASUREMENT: In this section, the sustainability of the Iskotew Lodge is assessed with reference to two sources – the Wolf Project’s Award (which it won) and the International Institute for Sustainable Development Calls to Action, Guiding Principles for Policy Change from 1992, which precede it but are relevant to consider.

Policy Performance
The Wolf Award

“Demonstrate excellence working toward enhancing respect and understanding between cultures and races” (The Wolf Project, n.d., para 2).

The Iskotew Lodge does well to promote respect and understanding through its availability of resources to government employees, while offering support to overcome differences in cultural attitudes in the workplace. Its services invite nations across Canada to participate in a communal act of cultural appreciation and regeneration. All races and faiths are welcomed, whether they are employees or not.

Based on Clarkson, L., et al. (1992). “Calls to Actions,” Our Responsibility to the Seventh Generation, Indigenous Peoples and Sustainable Development:

Policy Performance
1. Protection for the Traditional Way of Life

“Policies and practices must be adopted that will ensure protection for the traditional indigenous way of life” (Clarkson, 1992, p 78).

The indigenous sweat lodge is seen as sacred as the act of cleansing is closer to a sacrament than a recreational activity to the native health tradition (Bruchac, 1993, pp. 4-6), yet the lodge is not protected under heritage designation, as it is not defined as a significant heritage asset.
2. Documentation, Promotion and Protection of Traditional Knowledge and Practices

“Traditional medicine systems must be recognized as the equivalent of modern medical systems” (Clarkson, 1992, p 82).

Placing the Sweat Lodge within the Health Canada Headquarters facilitates dissemination of traditional aboriginal knowledge, and the resources cover a variety of nations and medicine systems within their services. Ceremonial healing traditions such as the sweat lodge, smudging, drum circles, and even craft circles and workshops aid this further. (Ice, 2013, p 23).
3. Healing Programs

“Healing programs must be developed to ensure the health and well-being of current and future generations to ensure the maintenance of sustainable societies” (Clarkson, 1992, p 84).

Indigenous people direct the Healing programs run in the Iskotew Lodge and those providing the teachings are two residential Elders and visiting Elders from across Canada (Ice, 2013, p. 23). The holistic approach of the lodge, which was designed to include male, female, First Nations, Inuit, Metis, Aboriginal and not, one and two-spirited visitors (Ice, 2013, p. 23).
3. Healing Programs –

“Healing programs must be focussed on the re-integration of mind, body and spirit.” (Clarkson, 1992, p 85).

The very nature of healing in a sweat lodge revolves around the concept of “Holistic Healing,” which includes physical, emotional, spiritual, social and cultural healing (Bruchac, 1993, p 107). Its incorporation within the Health Canada Headquarters implies this holistic approach is combined with western healing as well.
3. Healing Programs

“The “client” relationship in helping services must be eliminated if real healing is to occur” (Clarkson, 1992, p 85).

The Lodge offers both guidance and support to employees and regular users alike, which creates a consistent and equal footing and respect for the health services the employees are getting and the services they are providing. There is an increase in understanding and appreciation for health across cultural differences in the lodge’s communal environment, which creates a communal healing rather than one healing the other (Cohen, 2006, p 147).
3. Healing Programs

“It must be recognized that reconnecting with the land is a central part of the healing process, and initiatives must be supported that provide for this dimension” (Clarkson, 1992, p 86).

While the building is situated at the end of a long narrow green space and it backs up to the riverbank south of the Ottawa River, the healing activities are limited to the Lodge’s interiors. In addition, the heritage designation is confined to the footprint of the building, meaning the surrounding environment is open for development and use.

While assessing the results above, it is clear that the Brooke Claxton building performs quite well in terms of maintaining cultural and social sustainability through its health services and Iskotew Lodge, especially within the context of Canada’s administrative centre for health care since traditional knowledge can be more easily extended to other health departments across Canada. However, there is a lack of protection of this sustainability through direct policies and practices affecting such services. Furthermore, there could be more attention on the natural environment and what it has to offer for the sustainability of site as well as its ties to the holistic healing processes introduced by traditional knowledge.


Books/Book chapters/Journal articles

  • Bruchac, J. (1993). The Native American Sweat Lodge: History and Legends. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press.
  • Cohen, K. (2006). Honoring the medicine: The Essential Guide to Native American Healing (1st ed.). New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Hazlehurst, K. M. (1994). A Healing Place: Indigenous Visions for Personal Empowerment and Community Recovery. Rockhampton, Qld., Australia: Central Queensland University Press.
  • Kalman, H., Roaf, J., & Ottawa Society of Architects. (1983). Exploring Ottawa: An Architectural Guide to the Nation’s Capital. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • LaDuke, W. (1992). Minobimaatisiiwin: The Good Life. Cultural Survival Quarterly, 16(4), 69.
  • Ice, J. (2013). The Iskotew Lodge, Ottawa: Opening Hearts to a Healing Journey. Spirit Magazine 22 – 23. Retrieved from http://www.fnha.ca/SpiritMagazine/
  • Waldram, J. B., Young, T. K., Herring, A., & EBSCO Publishing (Firm). (2006). Aboriginal Health in Canada: Historical, Cultural, and Epidemiological Perspectives (2nd ed.). Toronto [Ont.]: University of Toronto Press.

Policies/ Reports