Cousins on Alberta First Nation say garbage just the start of path to rebuild community spirit

A group of young people from the Piikani First Nation in southwestern Alberta aim to reignite their community spirit by tackling garbage, abandoned homes and the drug crisis. They started the group Hope for Healing and have already begun a number of initiatives.

Hope for Healing group says litter, abandoned houses and drug crisis are eroding First Nation's sense of pride

The group Hope for Healing was started by a few cousins from the Piikani First Nation in an effort to clean up and rebuild community spirit. (Colleen Underwood)

Jolene Crowchief says her home on the Piikani First Nation in southwestern Alberta is not the same place she remembers growing up — where there were powwows, sober dances, community hunts and sweats. 

Nowadays, she said, people spend a lot of time inside their homes where they feel safe, but alone — some struggling with poverty and addictions.

"I just was saddened by waking up every day and looking out my front window and seeing ambulance after ambulance, cops after cops, just stuff like that going on," said Jolene Crowchief, member of the group Hope for Healing.

It wasn't just the overdoses that depressed her. Crowchief said it was the garbage, the abandoned houses, and the hopelessness.

She said rather than waiting for someone else to bring about the change she was looking for, she and her cousins Justice Yellowwings and Tori Pilling came together to form Hope for Healing. 

"We're calling it Hope for Healing, because we're hoping for healing — we're hoping that we come back together and we unite as a community," said Crowchief.

"We can only wait around and watch things deteriorate so long before we have to feel like we have to do something because this is our home — these are our people," said Tori Pilling, 26.

​​​​​​​Jolene Crowchief collects garbage from ditch that runs in front of her home in Brocket, Alta. (Colleen Underwood)

Start small

Hope for Healing's first priority is to rid the town of Brocket of the garbage that collects along their fences and in their ditches. Brocket is the main community on the Piikani First Nation, just off of Highway 3 between Fort Macleod and Pincher Creek. 

The band provides regular garbage pickup for residents, but the group said some of it blows away and a lot of the larger items, such as tires, broken bikes, or pieces of siding, end up accumulating.

"When I was younger, it was more community-like, everyone was all about the children's future, keeping the home clean if we want to live happily,  but nowadays it's like everyone just doesn't care how it looks anymore." said Justice Yellowwings, 27.

It's not just unsightly. There are also safety concerns related to discarded needles and other drug paraphernalia.

Myah Legertln, 10, and Jermaiin English, 9, help pick up larger items that have been left along the ditches in their community. (Colleen Underwood)

So the group is partnering with the nation's health department to learn how to pick up hazardous materials as well as organizing regular community cleanups, which started in spring.

The ask is simple — one black garbage bag full per person.

Kids are given $2 as an incentive. Soup, bannock and bottles of water are also provided.

And so far they say people are showing up.

"This last cleanup we had 17 people come out — that's almost triple what our first show was, great," said Pilling.

Tear down the walls

The group said the bigger eyesores are abandoned or condemned homes littered throughout the reserve.

They say they are keen to knock these down because of what they attract.

"As the drug crisis started to hit and impact and influence our reservation more, we have started to notice more recently that there are people that are trying to utilize these abandoned homes to sell drugs and to do drugs … we've already had some people OD in these houses," said Pilling.

The group said it's been working with the band office and a construction company to orchestrate the teardowns. 

​​​​​​​Jolene Crowchief says condemned and abandoned homes on the Piikani First Nation attract drug activity and the group is working to have them torn down. (Colleen Underwood)

But Crowchief said there's been pushback from some residents who are either worried about where people with addictions will go if the homes are torn down, or they fear repercussions.

"I think a lot of people, like, they're afraid to kind of come out to people that are dealers and stuff like that … so they don't want to help out or they just don't feel it's a thing that they should do." 

Build connections before sobriety

Some members of the group, including Crowchief, are recovering from addictions.

Crowchief said she was bounced between her mother and her grandparents growing up, and spent many years living in Calgary.

She said her lowest point was after she lost custody of her now 10-year-old daughter.

"I didn't even recognize my own kid and that's what hurt me the most and that's when I told myself, is this what I really want to do with the rest of my life?"

Crowchief has been clean and sober for three years now. 

She said she needs to draw people out of their homes and their despair and involve them in Hope For Healing's efforts.

"We need that support first in order to be able to do anything right."

 In the meantime, the group plans to build lending libraries designed to hold naloxone kits — an opioid overdose antidote — and install them throughout the community.

Pilling said it took her a long time to find sobriety, so she understands not everyone is ready at the same time.

But she hopes this group's efforts will be the start of a larger transformation of the reserve's lands and its people.

"An avalanche doesn't start with an avalanche, it starts with a piece of snow falling and if we could be that beginning and just let the community see, because that's what we're hoping, that's our big hope that the community starts to join," said Pilling.