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Douglas Cardinal to revisit ‘purple school’ 50 years after designing it

Hay River's Diamond Jenness High School in August 2019
Hay River's Diamond Jenness High School in August 2019. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

The architect who designed Diamond Jenness school will revisit Hay River this coming week, half a century after finishing his work.

Douglas Cardinal says he asked students what kind of school they wanted when he began the design in 1972, and gave them just that.

Cardinal said students told him: “Going to school is difficult, because when we get out of school it’s dark in the winters … so we don’t see the vitality of life around.”

He was inspired by the works of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher who believed in educating students in a way that enabled them to become their true selves.

So Cardinal collaborated with artist Peter Rice-Jones to make the school fun, open, airy, and most importantly colourful. “Let’s get the students together and let them choose the colours that they want,” he recalled saying. 



Cardinal wanted the students to feel like the school belonged to them.

“I wanted the children to be shrouded by art. I wanted them to relate to the school mind, body, and soul,” he said.

Douglas Cardinal pictured while giving a speech. Photo: Diamond Jenness Secondary School

Diamond Jenness Secondary School opened in 1973 and is profoundly purple. The rounded edges of the school were meant to make it look maternal and give it a nurturing feel. 

“As of two years ago, there was a complete revamping of the school and it was renovated … so it is good for another 50 years,” said Sandra Patterson Lester, the school’s co-chair. 



Despite those renovations, the school stuck with its iconic bright purple for the exterior. 

“They talked about changing the colour and there was almost an uprising,” said Sheila Cook, the school’s treasurer. “Like, ‘No! That school has to remain purple.’”

Lester said during the redesign process, the school was going to cut costs by painting the exterior a conventional beige or grey. “The outrage was such that they didn’t do that,” she added.

Cardinal is coming back for the school’s 50th anniversary reunion on August 19, along with his wife Idoia Arana-Beobide.

“It’ll give us a little boost from what we’ve been dealing with: a huge flood two years ago and then a fire this year in the spring,” Cook said. “I think it’ll be nice for the community to have something noteworthy.”

Cardinal met the first graduating class 12 years after he designed the school, when the students came to meet him in his Edmonton office. He is now looking forward to meeting the current generation of students – and their parents, most of whom also went to the school.

“I’m looking forward to listening to the whole community, because it’s communities like that that want to make a difference for the children … that will take on the challenges of providing the best education they can,” he said.

Cardinal is considered one of the most influential Indigenous architects in Canada. He is known for designing the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.