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August 2019

The Muskrat Hut

At a glance
The team

University of Saskatchewan, Professor Alex Wilson, and Globalink students Debora Boratto and Mario Ribeiro

The challenge

Accessing clean and accessible remote kitchens and washrooms

The solution

A sustainable, locally sourced unit that comprises a toilet, shower, heat source and kitchen area

The outcome

The Muskrat Hut project supports community and cultural events, and is part of a larger goal to end the housing crisis facing First Nations People in Canada

What's next

More Muskrat Hut units will be built, and multiple First Nations communities will contribute to future designs and builds

 

Chemical porta potties and rental shower units can be expensive, environmentally hazardous, and unavailable in the northern regions. Members of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation community, as well as University of Saskatchewan Professor Alex Wilson and her team, want to solve this accessibility problem by utilizing Indigenous knowledge and resources. They are addressing the pervasive issue of the Indigenous housing crisis by creating a solution from within the Indigenous community, building what they have aptly named a Muskrat Hut.

Also known as Wachusko weesti, the Muskrat Hut project aims to design a sustainable, locally sourced four-season prototype unit that comprises a composting toilet, shower/sauna, heat source, energy source (solar and wind), and a kitchen area.

How did the Muskrat Hut get its name? Prof. Wilson explains, “Canadians might be more familiar with the beaver as the hardworking symbol of Canada. The muskrat is its lesser known but equally persistent, quietly hard-working cousin.” Muskrats are an important animal in the ecosystem of Northern Canadian regions, just as access to clean water and toilets is an important aspect of any communal gathering. Muskrats are also have significance in the Cree cosmology and their story of evolution.

Architecture student Mario Neto and environmental engineering student Debora Boratto, both Mitacs Gloablink Research Interns from Brazil, have become immersed in this project. One of the students lives on Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba where the prototype hut is being built, and is learning Cree language from community elders.

Says Debora, “Each day here I realize that this not just a project. This is a way of a life. I don’t go to an office every day or to a university classroom. I live this project every day, which is amazing. I am not just learning technical skills, I am learning lessons from the First Nations people that are teachings for life.”

Both students have taken quite different aspects of the project on, and their internships have been tailored to suit their personalities and their academic specialties. Debora has been concentrating on the water filtration system of the Muskrat Hut so that the water is potable, while Mario has created computer generated renderings of the Hut. He has also put work into designing the steps outside the Hut, as accessibility for every community member is a core value of this project.

Another central tenet of this project is to prioritize and respect local resources and Indigenous knowledge. As Mario says, “Every project that aims to address homelessness should include that perspective at its core.”

In addition to honing technical skills in their respective fields, the Mitacs students have also gained a unique experience in project management and problem solving. As Prof. Wilson shares, “They really have to plan ahead and be resourceful. If they need something for the project they’re working on, they can’t just run to the store and grab it. Identifying a problem and creating a solution for it is a crucial skill for both engineers and architects, and by working on this project and living in this rural area, both Mario and Debora are gaining on-the-ground knowledge in problem solving.”

When asked about the outcome of the project at the end of the student’s internship, Prof. Wilson emphasized that the Muskrat Hut project will continue as one part of the larger goal to end the severe housing crisis that is facing First Nations people in Canada.

The larger goal of the Muskrat Hut project is to support community and cultural events, and ultimately address systemic issues of access to water and housing with solutions from within Indigenous communities.

The Muskrat Hut research project is partially funded by a Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Connections grant. The grant allowed Prof. Wilson to bring people from a number of First Nations together to assist with the design and build, and enabled the team to learn from the collaborative process and the pedagogy of One House Many Nations.

While the prototype build is taking place on Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba, Prof. Wilson hopes that members of different First Nations communities can come together to contribute to future design and builds of Muskrat Huts. Multiple Nations can share knowledge with each other and take the idea of Muskrat Hut to their own communities, enabling access for every community member to fully partake in communal gatherings.


Mitacs would like to thank the Government of Canada, along with the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, the Government of Manitoba, and the Government of Quebec for their support of the Globalink Research Internship program. In addition, Mitacs is pleased to work with the following international partners to support Globalink: Universities Australia; Brazil’s Universidade de São Paulo; China Scholarship Council; Campus France; German Academic Exchange Service; Mexico’s Government of the State of Guanajuato, EDUCAFIN, and Tecnológico de Monterrey; Ministère de l'Enseignement supérieur, de la Recherche scientifique, des Technologies de l'Information et de la Communication de la Tunisie and Mission universitaire de Tunisie en Amérique du Nord; and Ukrainian-Canadian Foundation of Taras Shevchenko.


Do you have a business challenge that could benefit from a research solution? If so, contact Mitacs today to discuss partnership opportunities: BD@mitacs.ca