AU honours mental health advocate and Indigenous architect with honorary degrees
Mental health advocate Dr. Austin Mardon and architect Wanda Dalla Costa will receive honorary degrees in recognition of their extraordinary efforts in their disciplines.
Two of the newest members of the Athabasca University community are being recognized for their work in academia, mental health advocacy, and collaborative architectural design.
At convocation on June 16, 2023, honorary degrees will be presented to Wanda Dalla Costa, a respected Indigenous architect who promotes collaborative design with Indigenous communities across North America, and Dr. Austin Mardon, an Edmonton-based academic and mental health advocate.
AU grants honorary degrees—the highest honour the university can bestow—in recognition of individuals who have made an extraordinary contribution to their chosen discipline, and/or shown extraordinary achievements in service to society.
In this way, AU recognizes and celebrates individuals whose achievements are so extraordinary that they transform lives and transform communities.
“One of the models that we're working within, we call it the Indigenous triad, where we're trying to make sure that every space we design reflects worldview, lifeways, and identity. If we can uplift all 3, and create a building that connects to those local communities for all those 3 aspects, that’s 1 of the ways we measure success in our work.”– Wanda Dalla Costa, honorary doctor of letters
Indigenous collaboration in architecture
Dalla Costa, the first First Nations woman to become a licensed architect in Canada, has spent her career focused on collaborative design, Indigenous place-keeping, and climatic resiliency. She will receive an honorary Doctor of Letters degree.
A member of Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Alberta, she holds a joint position at Arizona State University as an institute professor at The Design School and an associate professor at the School of Construction. She is also the owner and principal of Tawaw Architecture Collaborative.
In her work, she aims to increase authentic Indigenous representation in architecture and design, particularly in urban areas where many Indigenous people now live. She describes architecture as a “quiet form of activism.”
Dalla Costa describes her approach to designing for Indigenous communities as Indigenous place-keeping, which goes beyond simple consultation and brings Indigenous communities into the design process collaboratively, right from the beginning.
She said this approach contrasts with the prevailing view of architecture over the past 50 years, in which the architect, who is from outside the community, will be challenged to understand and connect to local needs and aspirations.
“One of the models that we’re working within, we call it the Indigenous triad, where we’re trying to make sure that every space we design reflects worldview, lifeways, and identity,” she said. “If we can uplift all 3, and create a building that connects to those local communities for all those 3 aspects, that’s 1 of the ways we measure success in our work.”
Dalla Costa has also contributed to AU’s RAIC Centre for Architecture, providing a popular and well-received workshop, Decolonizing Design Equity, as part of the Global Studio Lecture Series.
“I was basically told by doctors that my life was over, about 30 years ago. They told me I would likely be homeless and dead in 5 years. I had to find a purpose, so I made my purpose to be the volunteering, the lifelong learning, the publishing, the social connectedness, and the contribution to society as an advocate.”– Dr. Austin Mardon, honorary doctor of science
Recognizing advocacy for education, mental health
Mardon, a lifelong learner, researcher, and mental health advocate, will receive an honorary Doctor of Science degree in recognition of his contributions to geography, academia, and working on behalf of people with mental illness.
He is the director of the Antarctic Institute of Canada, a not-for-profit organization he founded in Edmonton, Alta., after he was part of the 1986-87 Antarctic meteorite expedition for NASA and the National Science Foundation. His team found more than 700 meteorites near the South Pole, and his passion for research has never been quenched.
“Every time I publish it’s like a physical thrill, that I’ve contributed to science in some small way. Every time I give a speech, it makes me feel good,” he said. “Like most professors, it’s a labour of love.”
He has written extensively on astronomical science, including a series of articles on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which recorded 11 cometary events and 2 meteor showers not mentioned elsewhere in the astronomical literature.
Beyond his work in astronomical science, Mardon is well known as a mental health advocate. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1991. He has not only published academic articles on faith and schizophrenia, homelessness, medication, and income support, he has also provided leadership as a former board member for the Edmonton chapter of the Schizophrenia Society of Alberta.
“I was basically told by doctors that my life was over, about 30 years ago. They told me I would likely be homeless and dead in 5 years,” he said. “I had to find a purpose, so I made my purpose to be the volunteering, the lifelong learning, the publishing, the social connectedness, and the contribution to society as an advocate.”
His advocacy work has already earned him several prestigious awards, including the Order of Canada and the C.M. Hincks Award from the Canadian Mental Health Association.