UVic’s National Centre for Indigenous Laws wins prestigious design award


Architectural rendering of the front of the National Centre for Indigenous Laws at UVic.
Architectural rendering of the front of the National Centre for Indigenous Laws at UVic.

Located on Lək̓ʷəŋən (Songhees and Esquimalt) territory, the National Centre for Indigenous Laws* (NCIL) at the University of Victoria is still under construction but its architectural design is already winning awards. Slated to open in late Fall 2024, the NCIL has received a 2023 Canadian Architect Award of Excellence, celebrating its Coast Salish design elements and focus on bringing the surrounding forest into the building.

The NCIL architectural design was created through a collaborative partnership between three architectural firms led by Two Row Architect, an Indigenous-owned firm, along with Teeple Architects Inc. and Low Hammond Rowe Architects. In assembling a team for the project, the architects “put themselves in UVic’s shoes” to consider how the university could be best served. They started by appointing an Indigenous firm (Two Row Architect) as the architect of record to provide leadership throughout all phases of the project, with a focus on conducting Indigenous and community engagements. They enlisted an international-calibre design firm (Teeple Architects) to collaborate with and provide insight into the drawings and specifications, and also joined with a local firm (Low Hammond Rowe Architects) familiar with UVic to respond quickly and provide design input during the construction and commissioning phases of the project.

UVic has been one of those very rare clients that not only supports the development of an Indigenous-inspired design, but also remains steadfast through all phases of the project to see it through.

— Brian Porter, Two Row Architect

The 2,440-square-metre addition to the UVic Anne and Murray Fraser law building will provide culturally appropriate space for the learning and teaching of Indigenous laws. This includes the Canadian Common Law and Indigenous Legal Orders joint degree program (JD/JID), the first of its kind in the world, as well as space for the JD program, public legal education programs, and much-needed classroom, clinical and research spaces for the Indigenous Law Research Unit, the Environmental Law Centre, the Business Law Clinic and the Access to Justice Centre for Excellence. The building will include an Elders’ room and garden, and spaces for gathering, ceremony, dialogue, research and the sharing of histories and knowledge. The design of the building will facilitate place-based learning and will create a flow between the old and new buildings and indoor/outdoor spaces, including an outdoor learning deck, a sky classroom and a maker classroom.

NCIL back forest
Architectural rendering of the back view of the new NCIL as seen from the woods.

 A design to honour Indigenous communities and the land

The design for the new building emerged through a long engagement process with Elders and members of the Songhees, Esquimalt and W̱SÁNEĆ communities, as well as with UVic’s Faculty of Law students and a team of staff and faculty members. The importance of honouring the land where the building is situated was at the forefront of all design decisions.

Indigenous peoples have maintained vital relationships with the places they have inhabited since time immemorial. These places, deeply imbued with meaning and identity, are sources of law and necessary inspiration for legal reasoning. Recognizing this deep connection between land and law, the NCIL is inspired by the legal landscapes of the Coast Salish world. Its design reflects the importance of water and offers acknowledgement of our relationships with the beings of this place: the forests, mountains, sky and all their inhabitants. In designing a space that seeks to represent what the Coast Salish world teaches us about our legal relations and lawful obligations, the NCIL design team has created an environment that intentionally gives pause to its visitors, reminding them to consider what it is they are being called upon to do as actors in this legal landscape, and how they can continue the work of honouring the legal traditions of their Coast Salish hosts.

— Sarah Morales (Su-taxwiye), Associate Professor, Coast Salish and Cowichan Tribes member

An Indigenous law institute

The NCIL responds to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Call to Action #50, which recommends “the establishment of Indigenous law institutes for the development, use and understanding of Indigenous laws and access to justice, in accordance with the unique cultures of Aboriginal peoples in Canada.” It also seeks to meet the responsibilities identified by the TRC for the legal profession and law schools set out in Calls to Action #27 and #28.  

From its inception, the NCIL has honoured Indigenous laws of these lands, upholding the local teaching ʔetal nəwəl | ÁTOL,NEUEL, where the essence of respecting the rights of one another and being in right relationship with all things is not merely a principle, it's how we live and walk in harmony with everything on this land. The University of Victoria has proudly redefined its approach to building and being in right relations with the land by weaving together Indigenous languages, arts and culture into the development of the NCIL. This innovative model not only harmonizes with the environment but also lives out our commitment to the local nations, sustainability and a forward-thinking vision in architectural practices. May this recognition ignite inspiration for other institutions to build respectful relationships with Indigenous communities to guide and support their planning and development.

— Qwul’sih’yah’maht Robina Thomas, Vice-President, Indigenous

The NCIL is the culmination of years of work, commitment to partnerships with local Indigenous communities, and supports the goals of the university’s Climate and Sustainability Action Plan, Strategic Plan, and Indigenous Plan. It also supports the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of quality education, good health and wellbeing, life on land, and peace, justice and strong institutions, which reflect the values of the University of Victoria.

Since 1967, Canadian Architect has sponsored an annual national awards program recognizing projects in the design stage. 

*The National Centre for Indigenous Laws is a provisional name.

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About the University of Victoria
UVic is one of Canada’s leading research-intensive universities, offering life-changing, hands-on learning experiences to more than 22,000 students on the edge of the spectacular BC coast. As a hub of transformational research, UVic faculty, staff and students make a critical difference on issues that matter to people, places and the planet. UVic consistently publishes a higher proportion of research based on international collaborations than any other university in North America, and our community and organizational partnerships play a key role in generating vital impact, from scientific and business breakthroughs to achievements in culture and creativity. Find out more at uvic.caTerritory acknowledgement

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Media contacts

Julie Sloan (University Communications and Marketing) at uvicnews@uvic.ca

Sarah Morales (UVic Faculty of Law) at 250-721-8184 or smorales@uvic.ca

In this story

Keywords: administrative, Indigenous, law, Indigenous law, National Centre for Indigenous Laws, sustainability, reconciliation, faculty of law, faculty, staff, student life

People: Sarah Morales, Robina Thomas

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