Systemic racism talking circle gets change rolling

The third in a series of meetings to address racism in the St. Paul/Saddle Lake area was held on Tuesday, December 5 at Saddle Lake Cultural Centre, leading to small steps in the long journey to racial harmony.

Representatives from Saddle Lake council, the Town of St. Paul, the County of St. Paul, Blue Quills, Saddle Lake and St. Paul schools, and the St. Paul business community, as well as MLA David Hanson, and interested members of local communities were in attendance. Noticeably, there was no representation from the RCMP or from Alberta Health Services.

The meetings were initiated following incidents in St. Paul in which some First Nations people faced discrimination. Stories were shared of biased reffing in minor sports, parade candies being thrown at First Nations children or out of reach of the children, health services not being provided at the hospital, feeling unwelcome at rodeos and hockey games, being subjected to racial slurs, and being prohibited from using the washrooms at some businesses.

As Leonard Jackson, from social services and former chief of Saddle Lake observed, “Racism is like bullying. People between the bullies and the bullied are the largest group. They may turn away, but we need them to understand and to step forward.” To bring in this silent majority, Jackson proposed a healing walk to show that the people of Saddle Lake and St. Paul are coming together. Mayor of St. Paul, Maureen Miller, committed the town to hosting the walk on January 10.

A suggestion was made that merchants and businesses in St. Paul display a symbol indicating that they will not tolerate racism.  Linda Sallstrom, executive director with the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, welcoms the idea, and looks forward to working with interested partners from Saddle Lake to create this “symbol of respect.”  Sallstrom also revealed that the Downtown Revitalization Committee is looking at installing toilets in the downtown core.

Wally Sinclair, Indigenous advisor and elder, promoted the Red Blanket exercise as an important step in cultural awareness that should be mandatory for sports officials, business people, and health care workers. He said that health care workers in Lac La Biche have recently participated in the exercise, and that some doctors have attended sweat lodges and smudging ceremonies. These activities expand cultural sensitivity, and build understanding of the colonial history of the First Nations peoples.  Carl Quinn who moderated the discussion, asked, “Would the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce look at providing cultural training for businesses?” to which Sallstrom replied, “We’d be willing to host, but want a partner who can do the training.”

St Paul and Saddle Lake have historically depended on each other. Councillor Herb Cardinal, who initiated these meetings, explained, “We helped the settlers survive. They could not have made it without the Indians.”  He added that a picture of his great-grandfather is hung on a wall in Smitty’s restaurant.

Council member Pauline Hunter also referred to historical connections between the Cree people and the settlers. She brought attention to a statue of an elder erected in front of St Paul’s post office. The peace pipe held by the elder was broken years ago and has never been repaired. She asked, “What does that say? The treaties were signed with the pipe and were done in good faith.”

Recognizing the significance of repairing the relationship, Amil Shapka pledged, “I will take personal responsibility for getting the pipe fixed on the statue by the post office.”

Hunter passed on a story of Creator and the evil one to illustrate that the world is built on the lies of power, control, and greed, and this is what turns people against each other. These lies lead to racism and prejudice.  She says that poverty on the reserve means that needs and demands are met with limited resources, so people look to the neighbouring town for required services. However, they sometimes find coldness and humiliation. “It goes back to when you’re hurt, it angers you. But we have to learn to do things differently. We must build new institutions out of love.”

Members of the circle shared invitations. Said Cardinal, “Whenever we have an event, come on out. I’ll take you by the hand and escort you around.”

Miller said, “I would like you (the people of Saddle Lake) to feel welcome in St Paul, and I want to feel welcomed here.”

Further information on the walk and the next meeting, currently planned for January 10 following the walk, will be posted on the town website.