Governance recommendations

Douglas Cardinal recalls Mrs. Salter

Jeffrey Schust awarded in Atlanta


Douglas Cardinal

Shortly after the opening of his Museum of the American Indian in Washington, internationally renowned architect Douglas Cardinal reflects on the nurturing influence of Mrs. Salter - a young teacher who encouraged him and set him on the path toward his career in architecture.

Mrs. Salter rescued Douglas Cardinal when he was in a "very rough" residential school.

He doesn't remember her first name. "I'm 70 years old, so none of my teachers are around now." But he does retain a strong memory of his teacher in Grades 7, 8 and 9.

Cardinal, who is of Blackfoot descent, was born in Calgary in 1934. When he was seven or eight years old he was enrolled at St. Joseph's Convent, a boarding school established by the Daughters of Wisdom on the brow of the North Hill in what is now the city of Red Deer. About half the students were native kids; many others were Italian or Irish.

"I was there with my two younger brothers. We were always having to deal with harsh treatment - beatings and strappings," he says.

Cardinal recalls clearly the day one of his brothers was hit in the face for whispering during a Holy Thursday service. "Back then the church was very strong and dictatorial.

"But Mrs. Salter was not like that. She always tried to make our lives better. We could tell her our problems and she always listened to us. In contrast to the sometimes brutal and uncaring environment, she was loving and kind and very warm."

More than that, she was curious about life and culture, and she tried to teach young Douglas about the world. "I was interested in history, the Renaissance and the Greeks. She would make sure I had books about architecture and art. She got me interested in music and encouraged me to draw.

"I remember one time I told her I was going to do this drawing for her. She was a very striking girl. I based it on a picture I'd seen of a nude female in the shape of a circle with her arms out, showing the signs of the zodiac.

"I didn't have a model," he laughs, "so I followed the etchings. I spent a lot of time on it and gave it to her. She said, 'This is very beautiful, but where did you get this anatomically correct female body?' I said, 'From the art books.' As Michelangelo said, you have to know the nude form. She told me she would keep it but wouldn't show it to the nuns. They wouldn't understand!"

"That kind of acknowledgement makes you want to do your best."

Salter steered him towards his architectural career. "She opened that door for me."

At St. Joseph's Convent, Cardinal was exposed to the rich history of art, architecture and music in the Catholic Church. He learned to appreciate Baroque churches. He copied drawings from the altar. "They're beautifully engraved, you know."

After Grade 9, Cardinal went to high school in Red Deer. "When Mrs. Salter left, I left. I'm not sure I told her what a difference she made, because I turned my back on everything at the convent."

His memories of the school and his relationship with the church are complicated.

Cardinal went on to study architecture at the University of Texas, where he graduated in 1963.

There, he delved more deeply into the Renaissance and Baroque periods. He was inspired by Francesco Borromini, an Italian architect of the early 1600s and a contemporary of the sculptor-architect Bernini, who was in charge of building operations at St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. "It was less disciplined, totally organic, wild stuff really. I saw the passion in that architecture."

One of Canada's most successful and controversial architects, Cardinal's signature works combine organic design with a vision of the people who inhabit the space. Among his eye-catching designs are St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Red Deer (1968), the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau (1989) and the First Nations University of Canada, opened by HRH Prince Edward in Regina in 2003.

"Life is very funny," he reflects. "Lessons in life are always right in front of you. I got so I couldn't even walk past a Catholic church without having a stress attack. So who am I married to? I'm married to a Catholic!

"The convent school was a very rough experience, but Mrs. Salter was a ray of sunshine. She had lost her parents at a young age and wanted to give something to other children because of her own challenges."

From his own bittersweet experience, he draws a message for teachers: "Acknowledge, support and listen to your students. Care about them. Have a good heart. That was so important. That kind of acknowledgement makes you want to do your best."ps

Douglas Cardinal is principal architect at Douglas J. Cardinal Architect Ltd. in Ottawa. He is currently working on projects in Sioux Lookout, Blind River and Ottawa as well as in Quebec, Alberta, New Brunswick and Washington, DC.