In the final part of our series exploring racism in rural Canada, Al Jazeera examines the possibilities for meaningful reconciliation.
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St Paul, Alberta – When Amil Shapka, 62, reflects on his hometown being referred to as racist, he grows defensive. St Paul, Alberta, is dear to his heart. The people here, he says, are closely connected and it is a good place to raise a family.
He is sitting at the kitchen table in his custom-built home on 500 sprawling acres parallel to a lake. Life here is good for Amil.
“I’m a proud St Paulonian; I sing its praises!” he declares with a bright smile. “I’m proud of our community, despite its warts and blemishes.”
Then he bows his head a little and sighs.
“We have real issues here,” he says.
“Every second day in the local media you read about it. All the communities are up in arms. Properties are being broken into. They’re chasing people down the back roads and all the vehicles end up on the reserves … things are escalating.”
Among non-Indigenous residents of the area, he says, residents of Saddle Lake Cree Nation and other nearby Indigenous communities are being blamed for rising rates of property crime.
“Visibly, a lot of these events that are happening are by Indigenous-looking people,” he says.
But Amil does not hold any anger toward local Indigenous people.
‘Our own worlds’
Growing up in the area, Amil had a couple of First Nations friends, but really did not know much about the Indigenous people living nearby.
“They [First Nations] lived on the reserves, we lived in town and our worlds never mingled,” he recalls.
But he knew what most townspeople thought of the First Nations.
“Sometimes our parents would threaten that if you didn’t behave, ‘we’re going to take you to the Indians’,” he says.
“The opinions of Indigenous people we had were of the ones that had addiction problems that ended up living in St Paul and they were on the street. They would be asking for money or drunk – they would not be viewed as a positive and were not welcome.”
But when he was in his 30s, the physician-turned-dentist began what he describes as a journey of spiritual transformation. He approached Cree elders and was stunned to discover how welcoming they were. He started participating in ceremonies, including the sweat lodge, on Saddle Lake Cree Nation.
“I found a beautiful, simple spirituality that just made sense to me,” he explains. “It was just me and the creator.”
He also forged friendships that have lasted to this day.
The process of reconciliation that unfolded for Amil on the reservation accelerated after the release of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Final Report in 2015.
The TRC was intended to uncover the truth about what had happened in Canada’s residential schools.
Learning about the colonial roots of local history helped Amil better understand the many adversities encountered by Indigenous people.
“There’s no question the effects of colonisation are still happening. I think when you want to see it, you will begin to see it – with a bit of understanding. I see it more than ever,” he says.
Harmony through reconciliation
For the past four years, Amil has attended monthly meetings at the St Paul Mannawanis Native Friendship Centre (MNFC) with a small group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members searching for a way to create harmony through reconciliation.
The process has not been easy, he says. It is uncomfortable and awkward, for everyone.
“These are deep-rooted conflicts with no immediate solutions … At our meetings, we try to break down why St Paul is racist. It’s a feeling of helplessness: What do we do? Where do we start?”
Amil believes St Paul is no different to Winnipeg, Regina or other urban centres in Canada when it comes to issues of racism.
“I think it’s anywhere there’s contact between the Indigenous communities and the colonials, it’s across the board,” he says, adding that it is important for people in positions of leadership to be involved in the reconciliation process.
A ‘heartbreaking’ journey
St Paul’s mayor, Maureen Miller, has worked toward reconciliation since she was first elected in October 2017.
Miller attended several anti-racism community meetings held in town and on the Saddle Lake reserve following an incident in the summer of 2017. Pamela Quinn, who is now a Saddle Lake band councillor, was crossing a road with her mother when a young man called them a “squaw”. Quinn confronted the man and his friends while recording it live on Facebook.
Tensions unfolded among townspeople and outraged Indigenous residents when the post went viral.
Miller met with chiefs, elders and community members over several months to help defuse the situation.
Since then the topic of reconciliation has been at the top of her priority list. She describes her journey toward understanding reconciliation as “heartbreaking”.
When Miller first moved to St Paul from Ontario in 1996, she says she was grabbed on Main Street by a First Nations man who wanted her necklace. Even though she was frightened, she says she defused the situation and the man let her go. When she found him not long after and learned that he was a residential school survivor, her eyes were opened. “He was a good person, just fell on bad times,” she says.
Still, Miller, small in stature but feisty and outspoken, is quick to defend the townspeople from accusations of racism.
“It’s an unfair assessment. It isn’t all racist. Everyone can’t be painted with the same brush,” she insists, describing St Paul as “welcoming, vibrant and multicultural.”
Miller is proud of a reconciliation walk that took place three years ago, following a series of racist incidents like the one targeting Pamela. Hundreds of young people, adults and elders from St Paul and the surrounding area took part.
The town now provides Indigenous cultural training to local government employees and local businesses. Miller participates in Indigenous ceremonies when invited and advocates for outside support from the federal government to help Saddle Lake with issues like infrastructure.
She holds the federal government responsible for housing issues, poverty and violence on the reserve.
“I feel our [federal] government has failed at multiple levels. Ottawa needs to do better; we need to do better; we need to do this together,” she says.
Championing reconciliation, however, has also brought her her fair share of critics. She is aware that may affect her chances of being re-elected in the autumn of 2021, but says she does not worry about that.
“We need to get past the knee-jerk reaction of this. Our community is completely linked to our Indigenous communities around us, and you start with that education,” Miller explains.
But being an ally can be hard: she has limited resources as a municipal leader and is often scrambling for funding, and reconciliation requires money. Money for programming, events and awareness. She is, however, determined to keep the momentum going.
“We’re all together in this,” she stresses.
‘Righting the wrongs’
On the second Thursday of every month a dozen or so people share a potluck dinner while sitting together in the shape of a circle. A sharing circle is considered a safe place for unity, dialogue and respect in Cree culture.
A few Metis, a couple of First Nations, some townspeople of Filipino, Ukrainian and French heritage introduce themselves and say where they are from and why they are there.
A couple of jokes break the ice but the conversation quickly turns intense.
“How did we become enemies?” contemplates 67-year-old, first-time attendee Anthony Tkachyk, a farmer from the nearby hamlet of Ashmont who has lived in the area his whole life.
He is here because a friend who has attended several meetings encouraged him to come – and because he is interested in unpacking the intricate layers of reconciliation.
Anthony is firm in his opinions, but amiable in his willingness to help bring change. A respectful silence settles upon the room as he speaks.
“My belief,” he says, “is that the healing won’t be imposed from above – from levels of government like Ottawa or Edmonton, the county office or the town office – it will be from the people.
“It will be one on one and it will move up towards those higher political offices.
“It won’t be imposed on the people; the people will impose it on the politicians.”
Stories, opinions and suggestions are eagerly exchanged in the circle. There are business owners, mothers, fathers, farmers, a homeless man named Howard, a teacher and even the local priest participating.
But not everyone is at the same stage of understanding or reconciling.
For lawyer and St Paul resident Pierre Lamoureaux it is about “righting the wrongs”.
“It’s important to give a message of peace, not of pity,” says Pierre, almost pleadingly, in a bid to convince others to embrace the task earnestly.
He delivers an impassioned speech.
“We give a message of solidarity. Walking together, learning together. We need to open our hearts, mouths, eyes and get past our fears. To learn from the past to know how to better live together.”
Sometimes at the end of the meetings, which normally last for about two hours, hugs are exchanged and friendships formed during informal chats.
The group hopes to catch on.
“Meeting each other as humans at this table and treating each other as humans, I think that’s the measure of success. We need people who would never want to come here, to come here,” Pierre reflects.
‘Feel the pain’
Meanwhile, Hinano Rosa, the executive director of the Mannawanis Native Friendship Centre Society in St Paul, says he is not convinced the group is making progress.
“What’s going on in Canada is the biggest kept secret on the planet!” he declares, sitting among others at the MNFC. “The continuing oppression of Indigenous peoples and reconciliation is a colonial package.”
Hinano, 61, is Indigenous to Hawaii and says he is familiar with the oppression Canada’s Indigenous people face. He would like to see non-Indigenous Canadians go beyond “superficial” acts of reconciliation, like community walks and monthly meetings, he says.
It is time to “feel the pain,” he explains, reaching his arms out in front of him and bringing them back toward his heart.
“Indigenous peoples have been muzzled for a long time. So, when we get in these kinds of meetings they [Indigenous] want to say their piece – and it’s heavy. But then the others [non-Indigenous] want to shut the meeting down because they don’t want to go there. They don’t want to hear it. They don’t want to get hurt. The truth is, they only got to feel the hurt – there are people here that had to live the hurt … but we will help them [non-Indigenous] – they won’t feel the hurt alone.”
Some in the group are optimistic, others are cautious and a few want reconciliation to happen overnight.
Many Indigenous elders, residents and non-Indigenous allies, however, say that reconciliation may not happen in this generation or the next on the Canadian prairies. Still, in St Paul small efforts are underway.
‘Still starving our people’
Back on the reserve, Saddle Lake Chief Eric Shirt believes reconciliation is connected to equality.
He believes the word is used too loosely and with too little action to back it up. The Province of Alberta, for instance, should distribute a cut of natural resource development revenues back to Indigenous tribes, he says.
Alberta has earned billions from industries such as oil and gas, mining and forestry since it was established in 1905, the chief explains. It is the richest per-capita province in the country, and has helped build the wealth of Canada. But most First Nations are struggling here.
“These are resources that come from our lands. Reconciliation means we have access to those resources and to profit,” he adds, reiterating the urgent housing, food and economic needs of his community.
There other obstacles to reconciliation as well. On March 27, two Metis men were killed while hunting near Glendon, which is about 60km away from Saddle Lake. A local non-Indigenous man has been charged with two counts of second degree murder and while the Alberta RCMP has said the shootings were not racially motivated, Indigenous people in the area say there has been a long history of tensions over race and hunting rights.
For the chief, reconciliation seems like a farce. Canada’s policy of genocide against the Indigenous rages on, he says.
“We are seeing the policy today via a lack of funding … the government is still starving our people out.”