Wood Buffalo's Indigenous people tell municipality how to heal a broken relationship

Indigenous communities and the Wood Buffalo municipality started a tough discussion Wednesday with a hope of moving towards healing for the region’s First Nations and Métis peoples.

'All indications are things need to change,' says municipal Indigenous relations director

Convent of Holy Angels Indian Residential School, church and mission in Fort Chipewyan around 1930. (J.F. Moran/Canadian Dept. of Indian and Northern Affairs/Library and Archives Canada )

The irony of holding reconciliation discussions at MacDonald Island Park in Fort McMurray was not lost on Mikisew Cree elder Steve Courtoreille on Wednesday.

"This very building, again, [is] stolen land," Courtoreille said, as he reflected on how some of the region's first peoples were displaced. 

In the 1970s the municipality bulldozed a Métis and First Nation settlement nearby on the Snye River to satisfy the hungry oil boom town's appetite for new housing.

Incidents like that hung over the start of discussions between Indigenous communities and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. The talks come with a hope of moving towards healing for the region's First Nations and Métis peoples.

Dennis Fraser is the director of Indigenous and Rural Relations for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. (David Thurton/ CBC)

The discussion centred on implementing the joint calls for action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

But it also included a larger discussion about the history of hate and abuse the region's Indigenous people endured at the hands of churches, governments and businesses.

Canada's Truth and Reconciliation commission spent over six years investigating the history and legacy of Canada's residential schools.

After hearing stories of abuse, undocumented deaths and the loss of language and culture, the commission said Canada's residential school system was a form of cultural genocide.

Among their 94 recommendations, commissioners called for reconciliation between Indigenous Canadians and the rest of the country.

Austan Najmi-Beauchamp created 21 canvases telling the story of residential school abuse. 1:03

Municipalities like Edmonton and Calgary have began implementing the calls to action.  

Wood Buffalo municipal councillors instructed administration to review the recommendations in November 2016 and is now in the process of consulting with the community.

'Things need to change'

Dennis Fraser, director of Indigenous and Rural Relations for the Wood Buffalo Regional Municipality, said a final report summarizing the feedback will be completed in the fall.

He expects there will be changes to the way the municipality operates.

"All indications are things need to change," Fraser said. "The status quo is no longer good enough."

Mikisew Cree elder Steve Courtoreille speaks about the history of hurt endured by Indigenous people in the Wood Buffalo region. (David Thurton/ CBC)

Courtoreille agrees. He is a residential school survivor who endured emotional, physical and sexual abuse. He sees how the trauma continues to impact generations of Indigenous families.

"When you drive down the street on Franklin Avenue (in Fort McMurray), in Edmonton or elsewhere and you see First Nations people intoxicated and passed out on the road," Courtoreille said.

"But does anyone stop and ask about what happened to them?"

Courtoreille says he hopes to see discussions about the creation of trauma and counselling sessions for those who need help and more education about history of Canada's Indigenous people in Canada.

Courtoreille also hopes to see reforms to the child welfare system which he says tears Indigenous families apart.

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitter or contact him via email.