Awmcphee photo Creative Commons
By Jeremy Appel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter/Alberta Native News
SLAVE LAKE – Driftpile Cree Nation Chief and Council have acknowledged the apologies issued by Councillor Joy McGregor and Mayor Tyler Warman, regarding culturally insensitive statements recently made by Coun. McGregor. And they have lifted the boycott that they had placed on the Town of Slave Lake.
On Nov. 12, chief and council met with Mayor Warman in Driftpile and had a difficult, but ultimately productive discussion about the issues that led to the comments made by Coun. McGregor. The chief and council shared what steps must be taken, both now and in the future by the Town of Slave Lake, to make meaningful and positive change to their satisfaction.
“Effective immediately, and in furtherance of the good faith discussions between our respective parties, we will officially lift the boycott,” stated the Driftpile chief and council in a release.
“Let us make one thing abundantly clear. We are not willing to tolerate discriminatory or racist behaviour from those in positions of authority with whom we are expected to engage in meaningful dialogue. As a result, should we become aware of any further instances of discrimination or racism, we will be speaking out and holding those responsible to account. It is time to acknowledge that our people have been in this region since time immemorial. We are committed to working collaboratively with the Town of Slave Lake on many issues affecting our region, and the time for healing must commence immediately.
“In closing, we respectfully acknowledge the Driftpile Cree Nation membership for supporting the decision to take a stance to advocate against racism and the unjust treatment of all people. Furthermore, we wish to acknowledge our relatives from across the Province who stood in solidarity with Driftpile Cree Nation.”
Earlier in the month, neighbouring chiefs stood together in expressing profound disappointment after Slave Lake Coun. Joy McGregor suggested the community needs to “stop feeding” homeless people from surrounding Indigenous communities.
McGregor, who acknowledged what she was about to say “sounds horrible”, was speaking about the town’s Homeless Coalition at council’s Sept. 8 meeting.
“A lot of our people are coming from Trout, Loon, Atikameg, Wabasca. They’re not even local to our own community,” she said. “We need to do some solid work … to get them home. We need to stop being so nice to them. We need to stop feeding them. We need to stop doing all these wonderful things.”
McGregor also said she wants to put a stop to homeless people charging phones and other devices outside Northern Lakes College, and wants to see hand sanitizer treated like mouthwash and Sudafed, which are sold over the counter to prevent people from drinking them.
“We’re always going to have people who are there that have made decisions in their life that lead them) not to have a home, but it’s our job to do whatever we can do and do our best to give them a purpose,” said Whitefish Lake First Nation Chief Albert Thunder in a Facebook video. “I’m sure there’s a more diplomatic way of finding a solution, instead of naming communities, making implications that only First Nations are homeless.”
Whitefish Lake wasn’t the only First Nation to condemn McGregor’s remarks.
The Driftpile Cree Nation issued a Nov. 8 statement, saying “neither the approach nor the language used by Councillor McGregor are appropriate or acceptable — particularly in an era of reconciliation between First Nations and Canada.”
Her comments are rooted in “willful ignorance” to the reason for homelessness and addiction in First Nation communities, which is “the direct result of our peoples’ forced disconnection from our land, culture and community by Canadian colonization.”
The nation spearheaded a boycott of the town’s businesses, insisting on a sincere public apology for “the callous, cruel and racist comments made by Coun. McGregor.”
McGregor said her words had been misconstrued in a Facebook post the same day.
“As a human being and Town Councillor (sic), I’m still getting used to the fact that the public only sees 2 of our meetings live on social media,” she said, touting the town’s work with the Slave Lake Aboriginal Friendship Centre.
According to Driftpile Cree Nation, the town rejected a proposal from the Slave Lake Aboriginal Friendship Centre to rezone a provincially-owned building to serve as transitional housing at its Nov. 6 meeting.
“We are and continue to be deeply disappointed by the lack of partnership shown by the Town of Slave Lake in this regard,” the First Nation added in its statement.
The next day, McGregor changed tune to offer an apology of sorts, again on Facebook. “I am deeply sorry to you all and those affected by poor choice of language and the feelings you have felt since the September town council meeting,” she said. “Those who know me know that I truly mean no harm but I understand you can do the best you think you are doing and still have room to grow and learn from mistakes.”
Driftpile Cree chief Dwayne Laboucan says it was too general a statement to be sincere.
“She apologizes to everybody,” said Laboucan, who wanted McGregor to reach out and specifically apologize to the communities she hurt.
Mayor Tyler Warman also apologized for McGregor’s comments, but stopped short of calling them racist.
“The Town of Slave Lake would like to start by apologizing to the Indigenous communities near and far that we have left you with the impression that this is how our council thinks,” Warman said, adding that he should have spoken up immediately after McGregor’s remarks.
He said McGregor has received “some very personal attacks and she’s taking some time now to herself.”
Chief Thunder noted that McGregor apologized for the words sure used, rather the feelings that gave rise to them.
“What you’re saying to us is, those feelings are still there,” he said.
Sawridge First Nation Chief Roland Twinn, who met with Warman, said it was “a little weak” that he wouldn’t say the remarks were racist.
Sawridge is part of a tri-council “Friendship Accord” with the town of Slave Lake and the Municipal District of Lesser Slave River.
Chief Twinn didn’t support Driftpile Cree Nation’s boycott, nor did Chief Thunder. He offered instead to educate the community on reconciliation.
“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,” said Chief Twinn.