Edmonton police dedicated a traditional teepee in the river valley Wednesday.

The ceremony was part of a new strategy designed to foster cultural awareness within the police service, and many aboriginal people are hopeful for change.

Many blame racism for their mistreatment in the past — but now hope to build a new relationship with the Edmonton Police Service.

Former EPS employee Kathleen Sawdo said Wednesday's ceremony was a desperately needed first step to repair the relationship between aboriginal Edmontonians and the city's police force.

Sawdo, who used to work as an administrator for the victim services unit, said the need for cultural awareness within the police force is obvious.

"I was told to be less aboriginal at work," said Sawdo.

Among the things that her colleagues said were "inappropriate": earrings, her habit of keeping sweetgrass at her desk, saying "thank you" in her native language and displaying pictures of her children.

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Former EPS employee Kathleen Sawdo said the need for cultural awareness within the police force is obvious. She hopes the teepee dedication helps to prevent future aboriginal EPS employees from the stresses she experienced. (CBC)

"I had finally come to the place where you're supposed to be proud and you feel proud of who you are and where you come from," said Sawdo, "and that made me feel like I shouldn't be again and I felt like a dirty little Indian kid again."

Sawdo said she was promised that her unit would receive aboriginal-awareness training — but that police reneged on the promise.

"Their internal process obviously doesn't work. They can promise things and still get away with it — and that's not right."

Sawdo eventually quit her job, and later won a judgement against EPS through the Alberta Human Right's Commission.

She said she's hopeful the teepee dedication means real change is coming.

"I still have hope, but I’m skeptical."

Police Chief Rod Knecht said the ceremony was more than just a symbol.

"There's always ways to do things better. I think, historically, we could have done things different — we could have done things better. We don't always understand."

But now, he says, that is beginning to change.

"This is a great first step," he said. "It's tangible, something we can see, something we can feel, and I think it will bring the community together — the Edmonton Police Service and the aboriginal community."