Alberta News Northern Alberta

First Nation boycott of Slave Lake over homeless comments could cost businesses tens of thousands

Town of Slave Lake, Alta. Councillor Joy McGregor apologized for comments she made at a Sept. 8 town council meeting that were later denounced as “callous, cruel and racist.” (Town of Slave Lake photo of Joy McGregor)

SLAVE LAKE – The Driftpile Cree Nation responded to Slave Lake Coun. Joy McGregor’s racist comments with a press release on Sunday calling for its members to boycott Slave Lake.

The chief of Driftpile Cree Nation is tired of First Nations being the target of racist comments so he is speaking the universal language—money.

“We can complain all we want but it’s not going to go anywhere,” said Chief Dwayne Laboucan in response to a 10-minute anti-Indigenous remarks by Slave Lake Town Coun. Joy McGregor about the homeless situation in the town.

“We figured out, chief and council, a boycott was our best move to move forward to get the message out there (that) we’re not going to stand for that kind of talk in any kind of chambers and make it public like that,” said Laboucan.

Last week, the chief received a link to a Sept. 8 council meeting in which McGregor was giving an update on the Homeless Coalition. McGregor referenced “them” in respect to dealing with the Indigenous homeless people in the northern town, saying, “we need to stop being so nice to them, we need to stop feeding them and need to stop doing all these wonderful things.” She said “these people” needed to return to their settlements and communities.

“As of right now, we have been boycotting since Monday. All our accounts are frozen right now,” said Laboucan.

While he couldn’t offer an exact dollar figure as to the amount of money Slave Lake businesses will lose, Laboucan says it is in the “tens of thousands of dollars” pointing out that, in the past four years, 30 houses were built for Driftpile and the contract went to a firm in Slave Lake.

Band members, who shop daily in Slave Lake and have their health appointments there as well, are firmly behind council’s decision, says Laboucan. For now, they will be taking their business to nearby High Prairie.

“I’ve had a few calls from Treaty 8 bands and a Treaty 6 band. There is support out there,” he said.

Slave Lake is a hub for numerous First Nations in the region.

“The First Nations contribute a lot of money to these municipalities and that’s where we can be strong and hurt them in these boycotts if we want to play like that,” said Laboucan.

Driftpile Cree Nation announced its boycott in a Nov. 8 letter that was sent to the town of Slave Lake and local MLA Pat Rhen. Chief and council called for a public apology “for the callous, cruel and racist comments made by McGregor.”

That apology came on Monday. In a letter posted on Facebook, McGregor apologized for her use of “language that was inconsiderate” and said her “apology will not undo the harm and this moment speaks to bigger issues of systemic racism in our community.”

Mayor Tyler Warman also addressed the issue on Monday in a news conference, “apologizing to the Indigenous communities near and far that we have left you with the impression that this is how our council thinks.” He said McGregor’s comments were “not correct.”

Laboucan welcomed the public apologies, but said the town of Slave Lake had yet to reach out to Driftpile specifically.

“We are going to look at our boycotting … and we will figure out how we are going to move forward. Maybe it will be lifted and if Slave Lake does reach out to us, that would be great. We’re just here to move forward, make people realize they can’t be saying that kind of stuff in today’s society,” he said.

Laboucan said his council would be meeting on Thursday and would decide then whether or not to continue with the boycott.

Warman did reach out to the Sawridge First Nation last night, said Chief Roland Twinn.

Sawridge First Nation, the town of Slave Lake and the Municipal District of Lesser Slave River are part of a tri-council with a Friendship Accord. Twinn says Warman expressed his surprise at McGregor’s words, which led him to not being able to “stop the conversation when it happened.”

Twinn says his council was “shocked” by McGregor’s comments and condemns the racism. He adds that no one who participates in the tri-council meetings has ever voiced those views.

Twinn said he found Warman’s apology on Monday “a little weak” as the mayor did not acknowledge McGregor’s comments as being racist.

Twinn said his council wants to work through the Friendship Accord to educate the town – and if the MD is willing – about reconciliation and “fulfill some of the calls to action” from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He wants them to understand what Indigenous people have endured in Canada.

“We want to be part of a solution in the region. Our Friendship Accord speaks to making it a better region for all and we’d like to help with that,” he said.

He said Sawridge council has not discussed joining Driftpile First Nation’s boycott of businesses and services in Slave Lake.

“This was a comment made of a town council member, not the businesses at this point. Even though businesses may feel the same way, they haven’t made the public comment at this point,” said Twinn.

Barb Courtoreille, executive director with the Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre, says McGregor’s comments have caused a divide in the community.

“This does affect us. We’re a small community and we pretty much know each other. It’s really difficult. It’s not an easy situation. It’s going to take a lot of healing. It’s going to take us a while to get over this. How do you move forward from some of the words being spoken? How do you react when you see these people in our small town? It’s all going to be hard. It’s definitely not going to be an easy fix,” said Courtoreille.

She admits McGregor’s comments surprised her.

“Her words were very harsh. I don’t understand where her words come from because I do know Joy and I can’t understand why she would even say that. She’s left me a little bit confused there,” said Courtoreille, who adds she has not reached out to McGregor since she became aware of the councillor’s statements.

However, this isn’t the first time McGregor’s comments about “them” have been reported.

In April 2019, the Lakeside Leader, one of Slave Lake’s weekly newspapers, reported on a council discussion on removing the benches in the downtown’s Citizens Park as a way to control vagrancy. McGregor did not support the motion, saying removing the benches would only “move them a couple of blocks up the street… (or) they’ll sit on the ground.”

The news article further reported that Warman supported removing the benches because “part of the plan should be to keep them moving along.” He also said that some of the homeless were not from the community.

McGregor also contended in the September meeting that the homeless were not from Slave Lake.

“There’s a few, but not all that many. They’re classifying people who have been here for 30 years, who have been on our streets for over 20 years,” said Courtoreille.

Courtoreille says with the weather so cold, her focus is not on what council has said, but on keeping the homeless from freezing or getting pneumonia.

That work was made harder last week when town council turned down a request to rezone a building to allow it to serve as transitional housing.

Courtoreille has been running a mat program for the past four years for the town’s homeless. At one point, the homeless were allowed to lay their mats on a floor in a church. But a complaint from a neighbour did away with that option. Most recently, a room under renovation at the friendship centre for youth was used as a temporary shelter. However, that space is no longer available, so Courtoreille says she will now be using the hall in the friendship centre. The hall sleeps 19 people. She says there are about 15 people who need shelter regularly.

A point-in-time count for the homeless in Slave Lake, which got underway Sept. 25, will wrap up mid-November.

By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter / Windspeaker

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