What the mayor promised Driftpile to make the boycott go away

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

‘Difficult but productive’ was how the Driftpile Cree Nation characterized a meeting with Slave Lake Mayor Tyler Warman on Nov. 12. It resulted in Driftpile rescinding a boycott of Slave Lake, which had been prompted by remarks by a town councillor about homeless people that were perceived to be racist.

How productive the Nov. 12 meeting actually was became apparent in a follow-up news release from Driftpile on Nov. 24. It lists the commitments the mayor made, as understood by Driftpile chief and council. The understanding of the mayor is slightly different (see below).

The Driftpile list begins with “an in-person apology from councillor Joy McGregor,” and ends with the town reconsidering the zoning application for a homeless shelter (the one council denied).

In between those two actions are the following: that town council will “undertake cross-cultural training within a prescribed time period,” donate $5,000 to the Friendship Centre (Driftpile will match that amount) and “make efforts to create meaningful dialogue and partnerships with Driftpile Cree Nation and other neighbouring First Nations.”

The Driftpile letter goes further, suggesting additional steps it would like the town to take. These include Cree language on Main St. signs, naming a street in honour of Chief Kinosayo and providing mental health supports for homeless people.

How much of this actually happens depends on town council and probably to some extent on public opinion. Evidently the mayor agreed on the first five items, although it would have to be regarded as a tentative commitment. The rest of council will have something to say about it.
The same goes for the three additional recommendations.

Council met on the evening of Nov. 26 to discuss the matter. Reached by phone on Nov. 27, mayor Warman said “there are a couple of inaccuracies in that letter (from Driftpile).” In general, however, Warman says it does reflect the spirit of the conversation he and CAO David Kim had with Driftpile Chief and council. That has to do with continuing efforts to build better relationships with the neighbours, which includes being “committed to learning more about their culture and their past.”

Warman added that the town is reaching out to the Sawridge First Nation and beyond them to Treaty 8 for advice on how to best accomplish that.

The notion of doing any particular training within a prescribed time period, he said, is one of the inaccuracies mentioned above. The other is the ‘in-person apology’ by councillor McGregor. He said apologies have been made in writing and in public at a meeting, and that should be sufficient.

Another minor inaccuracy in the Driftpile letter, Warman said, has to do with the $5,000. In council’s view, the town commitment was to put the money towards homelessness. A plan needs to be developed, he said, on how best to direct it.

On the whole, Warman said what he most took away from the meeting with Driftpile was “the spirit of working together.”

As for the three additional Driftpile suggestions, Warman said “we appreciate them.”

For some perspective on the situation, The Leader contacted University of Alberta Native Studies professor Patricia McCormack. She says the Driftpile demands don’t sound unreasonable to her.

“I kind of like the idea of using Cree” on signs, she says.

Reconciliation is very complicated, McCormack continues, and she finds people tend to use the term without really knowing what it means. Citizens in towns and cities near First Nations communities also often don’t seem to realize that racism exists. She says she used to hear about it from her students, for example from Maskwacis, who would experience racism in nearby Wetaskiwin. “Mostly they’d just suck it up,” she says. “I think a lot of people just aren’t willing to do that anymore.”

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