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Headshot of DAA recipient Michael Robertson

Meet the 2024 Distinguished Alumni Award for Community Service recipient

April 17, 2024 — 

Michael Robertson [BA/98, MArch/04] is the recipient of the 2024 Distinguished Alumni Award for Community Service

The first Indigenous graduate from the University of Manitoba’s Master of Architecture program (with honours), Michael Robertson has been a Partner at Cibinel Architects Ltd. in Winnipeg since 2014.

A pillar of the Manitoba architecture community, Robertson is a current member and Past Chair of the Faculty of Architecture Partners Program, a former board member of BUILD Inc, and the former Chair of the Community Advisory Board’s Winnipeg Housing and Homelessness Initiative.

As a passionate advocate of equity and community service, Robertson has dedicated much of his time to helping others through a variety of commitments, from his volunteer work as Chair of United Way Winnipeg’s Board of Trustees, to his projects with the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, Siloam Mission and Main Street Project  and his service to UM over the years as a member of the President’s Advisory Council and former member of the University of Manitoba Board of Governors.

Though he has worked in architecture for 23 years now, Robertson began his career journey working in the student records office at UM while completing his BA in the Faculty of Fine Arts.

“My brother was there ahead of me, and he had a job working in the student records office, so I started working there before I went to school at UM,” says Robertson. “That was my whole life, school and work all at UM. I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.”

Though he would eventually change career directions, moving from Fine Arts to the Faculty of Architecture, there was never a question in Robertson’s mind as to where he would attend school.

“You stumble into things in life, and you feel like maybe it was always the right thing the whole time and you just didn’t know it,” reflects Robertson.

“The way my career has gone, where else would I have gone to school? So much of my work is within our community here, especially with urban Indigenous, and where would I have had a chance to do my learning in that milieu the way I was able to do it here? In the end, even though I stumbled into it, I couldn’t have made a better decision if I had thought about it in more depth.”

In his work as an architect, Robertson embraces the philosophy of An Architecture of Self-Determination, whereby buildings are created and influenced by communities during their development, design and construction. This emphasis on community-oriented design has informed much of the building projects that Robertson has been involved in over the past two decades.

As quality architectural design involves recognizing invisible obstacles and anticipating the essential needs of a space, Robertson’s community work stems from his perspective that true equity comes from recognizing the barriers that those less fortunate are struggling to overcome, and providing the essential supports that they need to help them where they are at.

“A huge part of my volunteer life has been in the ideas of equity in different forms, equity deserving groups, particularly with the Indigenous community, especially with people experiencing homelessness,” explains Robertson.

“That’s a confluence of my interests as an architect in what I believe people have the right to in our society, in our city. It’s unfathomable to me that we don’t have the supports around people that let them have a roof. Homelessness is so complex that learning about that simple idea that people should have a roof is a window into understanding so much more about inequity.”

Inspired by a profound encounter on a city transit bus as a young adult which opened his eyes to the inequity of homelessness in Winnipeg, Robertson’s passion for helping others continues to grow and influence him in ways that he never expected.

“I think that understanding has helped my work life, teaching me to be a good servant with my clients,” says Robertson. “All of these pieces come from that same heart, that same place.”

Driven by a constant desire to do more to help others in need, Robertson is generous with his time and his talents, continually working with the homeless and providing pro bono support for Main Street Project, Siloam Mission, and United Way Winnipeg.

“To get to work with people who are helping people every day, on the front-line, the objective is to help them do their job better, because they’re already doing amazing stuff,” explains Robertson. “You just hope that the help you’re providing just helps them do that work that much better.”

Especially meaningful for him is his work with Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, an architectural client which he describes as “the tiny village for people leaving homelessness”, with whom he has maintained a long-standing relationship, providing paid and unpaid services.

“Over the years, Michael has developed a profound relationship with [us],” says Gary De La Ronde, Chair of the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre’s Board of Directors.

“His commitment extends far beyond the realm of his paid architectural services. He has consistently demonstrated a deep understanding of our organization, values, and philosophies, dedicating countless non-billable hours to ensuring our projects not only meet but exceed our expectations.”

Despite his influential legacy of community service, Robertson, who leads with heart and humility, was first taken-aback when he was told he had been selected as the recipient of the 2024 Distinguished Alumni Award for Community Service.

“My initial reaction was that it was a mistake,” says Robertson.

“The thought that one person would think to nominate you is mind-blowing, for some other people to agree is crazy.”

Now that he has gotten over the initial shock, he sees the award as a meaningful acknowledgement of his work, which will inspire him to do more in the future. 

“It’s an overwhelming sense of honour and above that, a sense that I must make it worth it, I must work a little harder to be worthy of it. What does that mean to me? It means a lot.”

The 2024 University of Manitoba Distinguished Alumni Awards Celebration of Excellence presented by TD Insurance will be held September 19, 2024, during Homecoming. Get your tickets now as the event is always a sell-out!

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