'We're so used to not saying anything': Standing up against racism in St. Paul, Alta.
How one Alberta town is struggling to find the path to reconcilation
A small town northeast of Edmonton has the claim to fame of having built the world's first UFO landing pad.
Part of the plaque in front of the landing pad reads: "The area under the World's First UFO Landing Pad was designated international by the Town of St. Paul as a symbol of our faith that mankind will maintain the outer universe free from national wars and strife. That future travel in space will be safe for all intergalactic beings, all visitors from Earth or otherwise are welcome to this territory and to the Town of St. Paul."
But even though aliens and outsiders are invited, many of the area's own Indigenous Peoples are struggling to feel welcome in the town on what was once considered their ancestral territory.
"There's a lot of discrimination happening in St. Paul with our nation... since contact," said Saddle Lake Cree Nation Chief Ed Makokis.
St. Paul is about 30 km east of Saddle Lake and is the nearest large town to the reserve.
In 2005, Makokis led a boycott of St. Paul, refusing to shop at its stores after a town councillor was quoted in the local newspaper saying a "small percentage" of people from the reserve were "the problem" behind crime in St. Paul.
The boycott lasted a year, with Saddle Lake and other nearby Indigenous communities joining in. Officials even organized weekly bus trips for nation members to shop at other municipalities. Makokis wanted to show St. Paul business owners that they needed their business and he estimated the economic impact on the community resulting from lost sales was in the millions.
The business owners eventually offered an apology, according to Makokis. They promised change, while Makokis demanded respect for his community members. Twelve years later, Makokis shakes his head and says, "Not much has changed." Shoppers of Indigenous descent report being followed in St. Paul stores under suspicion of potential theft, he said.
The town was established as a Métis colony, known as St-Paul-des-Métis, but it was dissolved and the area opened to general settlement in 1909, drawing French Canadian and Ukrainian settlers.
There are seven First Nations and three Métis settlements within a 100 km radius, as well as a nearby former residential school that has been transformed into a First Nations university.
But the tensions run deep, said Makokis, because history is ignored, and discrimination and misunderstanding takes precedent in a continuous cycle.
"They don't teach this at schools," he said.
"It comes from homes; it's from parents passing it on to their kids and grandkids and keeps going from generation to generation."
'You have to stand up for yourself'
Pamela Quinn is a high school teacher at Kehiw Asiny Education Centre in Saddle Lake. She was crossing the street with her mother in St. Paul last August when a truck full of young men pulled up in front of them.
She heard one say "double squaw" out the window.
Quinn says she couldn't keep quiet anymore, like she had done so many times growing up as a First Nations woman in Saddle Lake.
"We are taught to let things go — 'kiyam' — and I can't," she said.
"You have to stand up for yourself. The voice takes a while to develop, because we're so used to not saying anything and being shushed."
She decided to get in her vehicle and follow the men to confront them. At the same time she started a live stream on Facebook, for her safety, she said, and to document the incident.
She caught up to the men in an industrial area.
"I approached them... They were trying to deny it. I told them how hurtful it was. I didn't get mad at them. I told them I had to go through this as a child and that what he did was not right."
She said the young men acted surprised and speechless for being called out. People started reaching out to her, sharing their stories of racism.
Soon after, her father Carl Quinn, a former chief of Saddle Lake, spearheaded a community meeting between St. Paul and the reserve to tackle the issue of racism through dialogue. There have been three meetings since.
"I want to be able to be safe and my grandchildren to be safe," she said.
"I don't want them to have to experience marginalization. I want them to be proud of who we are."
And she doesn't harbour any hate toward the people of St. Paul — they're not all to be painted with the same brush, she said.
'A very divided community'
Tanya Fontaine Porozni moved to St. Paul with her family when she was five and even at that young age noticed the racial strains at school.
Having the slightly darker complexion of her Ukrainian heritage, Porozni said she was singled out and discriminated against at that young age because people mistook her for being Cree. She said these experiences compelled her to learn about Indigenous Peoples and history in the area.
"I wanted to understand why, as a white person, I lived so differently than the Natives near me," said Porozni.
The hurt that's been inflicted is huge.- Tanya Fontaine Porozni
She took Cree classes in university and now champions Cree language revitalization in and around St. Paul. Over the years she has been adopted into nearby Indigenous communities and is on the forefront of implementing reconciliation.
"St. Paul is a very divided community with respect to Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. The subtleties scream at you. Many people deny that there's racism in this town and it's unfortunate. It means they've never experienced it and they can't understand it."
She believes it's time to look past the divisions, which isn't easy.
"Right now the divisions are so strong and it's terrible…. St. Paul has a long history. When it comes to the guilt and the shame of taking someone's land, we have to recognize that responsibility. The hurt that's been inflicted is huge. To ask people to forgive that? It's asking a lot."
Coming to terms with fear
Dr. Patricia Makokis, Indigenous engagement research scholar at the University of Alberta and a member of Saddle Lake Cree Nation, thinks it's crucial for non-Indigenous people to understand colonial history in order for reconciliation to move ahead.
"They have to come to terms with what they're scared of," said Makokis.
"Can you imagine the benefits if people would open their minds and hearts to learning? They would come to terms to understand the oppression connected to colonial history, then understand the resilience of Indigenous people to be here and to be surviving despite everything that was intentionally done in terms of cultural genocide."
They have no idea of who we are.- Dr. Patricia Makokis
The typical stereotypical view of a drunken Indigenous person passed out on the street is what's in people's minds in St. Paul, she continued.
"They have no idea of who we are. They make judgments on who we are based on folks that are suffering the fallout of historical trauma. The person suffering from alcohol is probably suffering from trauma that's connected to that residential school not far from town."
Reconciliation is a complex undertaking that requires education on both sides, she added.
Reconciliation committee formed
Last summer a reconciliation committee was established at the local Mannawanis Native Friendship Centre Society. There are anywhere from six to 12 participants at the once a month meetings, comprised of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
Committee member Hinano Rosa hopes to teach others about the importance of treaties.
They're treaty, too.- Hinano Rosa
"My hope is that we can get people to meet the treaty mandates — on both sides — like it was meant to be," he said.
Hinano, who is Indigenous to Hawaii, lives in St. Paul with his Cree wife and is passionate about helping achieve reconciliation.
"My hope is that in this community that non-Natives understand that they're treaty, too. Whether you're an immigrant like me or not, you have to respect that treaty. Both sides need to uphold it. All people are responsible, whether the government upholds it or not."
Benjamin Badger, a reconciliation committee member and council member at Kehewin Cree Nation, about 30 km northeast of St, Paul, said it's important for First Nations to find inner healing.
"I think before we can fully go through the reconciliation with the people that wronged us is we have to go within," he said.
"The internal traumas we carry need to be dealt with."
Badger is helping to organizing a reconciliation horseback ride this summer which will be held near St. Paul to acknowledge harmful governmental policies that are still affecting Indigenous nations.
Blanket exercise comes to schools
At St. Paul Education Regional Division No. 1, which includes the schools in St. Paul, a spokesperson said they're just starting their reconciliation journey and are in the "awareness phase."
Every staff member is mandated to participate in the KAIROS blanket exercise and learn about residential schools. During this academic year, although not mandated, all schools had the blanket exercise for their choice of grade.
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The school division is also implementing a Journey Toward Truth and Reconciliation plan with initiatives such as hosting a powwow, flying a Treaty 6 flag, incorporating land acknowledgement at appropriate division events and Orange Shirt Day awareness and participation.
"The response has been extremely positive from the general community, staff, and students," said Heather Starosielski, board chair.
"St. Paul Education's progress in response to the Truth and Reconciliation has helped to shine a light on an extremely unfortunate and regrettable time in Canada's history. It is our sincere hope that this current generation and generations of children to come will be more empathetic, better informed, and genuine in their actions. It is our desire to be a leader in not only education of our students, but advocating to our entire community about the importance of Truth and Reconciliation."
Mayor wants town to move forward
St. Paul Mayor Maureen Mills said reconciliation was a priority for her before being elected last September. She has attended all of the racism forum meetings with Saddle Lake and both sides say they are forming good relationships within leadership. She is also planning to attend a reconciliation walk planned for Feb. 5 in St. Paul.
"Would I say there's an issue? Yes," said Mills.
"It's heartbreaking. For me, and our town, as a town leader, the whole town environment needs to raise the bar by example. And it's almost like people are afraid to give up what they know or what they believe. I don't want to paint that picture of the whole community because that's not the case."
It's almost like people are afraid to give up what they know or what they believe.- Maureen Mills
There's a lot of hurt that needs mending on both sides of the fence, she said, and she's not sure if the hurt is still too close to home. But the division is something she doesn't want to see go on any longer.
"It's how do we walk forward. We can't be hung up on the racism part. The two communities communicate differently, this has to be respected and learned on both sides," she said.
Mills said she believes St. Paul is ready to move forward and focus on creating an inclusive community where all feel welcome. She said it's an investment to take the time to get to know your neighbours and share the perspectives that each has to share.
"If you understand where somebody else is coming from and they understand where you're coming from, you can go places."
With files from Chantelle Bellrichard