BIGHORN – For the first time in Alberta’s history, a First Nation is asking for the removal of a historic designation citing the monument’s “painful history.”
The province, however, is unclear on where that request for the McDougall Church sits. The 142-year-old church along Highway 1A burned down in May 2017 at 4 a.m. in what an investigation determined to be arson.
Earlier this year, the McDougall Stoney Mission Society got the green light by the province to restore the building after the ministry determined there were parts of the site that were salvageable.
But the Stoney Nakoda Nation has taken a strong opposition to the rebuild. They say the project is "not an act of reconciliation" and has sent a formal request to the province to rescind the historic resource designation, citing the church "symbolizes settler colonialism and the church's subjugation of the Stoney Nakoda people."
"The church lands, which were illegally taken from Stoney Indian Reserves 142, 143, and 144, served as the site of the former Morley Indian Residential School. The Stoney Nakoda note that the province of Alberta's statement of significance of the site ... does not include reference to this or any information that captures a painful legacy that for many Stoney Nakoda members is associated with the church," stated a Feb. 11, 2020 letter to the province, signed by all three Stoney Nakoda Chiefs – Bearspaw Chief Darcy Dixon, Chiniki Chief Aaron Young and Wesley Chief Clifford Poucette.
In an emailed statement to the Outlook, the province said the church's historic resource designation is "not under review," but did not clarify if the request to remove the designation is still under evaluation, or has been dismissed.
"The ministry continues to recognize the historic value of the site. The intent of the Historic Resources Act is that these designations protect the site in perpetuity," Michael Forian, press secretary to the office of the Minister of Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women, wrote in an email.
In a previous email to the Outlook in March, officials said there is no formal process for evaluating requests to rescind a provincial historic resource designation.
"In part, this is because these designations are intended to preserve highly significant historic places. Designations have historically only be rescinded when a resource has been profoundly compromised," press secretary Danielle Murray wrote in the March 10 statement.
In March, Murray said, "no decisions have been made in regards to this request."
Forian said the McDougall Memorial United Church has maintained its provincial historic resource status since Dec. 20, 1979.
"We recognize that historic places like the McDougall Church are part of a difficult and contested past. Our government continues to value the relationship with the Stoney Nakoda people and their leadership," Forian wrote in the recent email.
The Office of the Minister of Indigenous Relations spokespeople said they are keeping an eye on the saga and remain hopeful everyone can come to an understanding.
"The province and [Indigenous Relations] Minister [Rick] Wilson have an excellent relationship with the Stoney Nakoda and the leadership of the three First Nations ... We are aware of the significance of the McDougall Church issue and its painful past to the Stoney Nakoda people and are following it closely," Indigenous Relations press secretary Ted Bauer wrote in an emailed statement to the Outlook.
"We hope all parties can come to an understanding to move forward."
Forian noted the only time in recent history the ministry rescinded a historic designation was in 2005 after the Arlington Apartments in Edmonton were damaged beyond repair by fire, citing it was not feasible to preserve.
In the letter to the province, Nation officials said they do not believe the restoration project is an act of reconciliation.
"The Stoney Nakoda do not believe that the McDougall Stoney Mission Society, the owner of the church site, has acted in the spirit of reconciliation," the letter states.
"This includes opposing the 1986 apology issued by the United Church of Canada for its role in the residential school system; failing to act pursuant to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's Calls to Action; and failing to include the Stoney Tribal Council in discussions with Alberta Culture's Historic Resource Management Branch regarding the future of the church site after it was destroyed in 2017."
Stoney Tribal Administration CEO Ryan Robb said he understands there are some elders that support the restoration, but noted the Chiefs and councillors are the elected officials chosen to represent the Nation, and from the Nation's official standpoint, it does not support the rebuild.
"Our official position is we are not in support and we do not consider the [project] to be a community building, we consider it a church ... one that has a long and painful history to the Stoney Nakoda people," Robb said.
In February, Stoney Nakoda Tribal Council filed an appeal to the MD of Bighorn subdivision and development appeal board to deny the McDougall Church a development permit on the grounds the society listed the rebuild as a community building. The Nation argued the building was for religious assembly, which was not permitted for development.
When the appeal was dismissed in early March, the society began work on the restoration project.
McDougall Stoney Mission Society president Brenda McQueen said the group is hopeful to have the project done by September.
"It is our understanding that there is no formal process for removing the designation as a provincial historic site, and that it is the decision of the minister responsible," McQueen said in an emailed statement to the Outlook. "We are not involved in this process and have no knowledge of the status of this request. Therefore, we have continued construction on the basis of the approved building permit."
The request to remove the provincial historical designation was driven by the fact the church was no longer on the land.
"According to the statement of significance, the heritage value of the site was based largely in the architecture of the church. As the church is no longer on the lands, the Stoney Nakoda request that the provincial historic resource designation be rescinded," the letter to the province reads.
"The Stoney Nakoda people are not in favour of the construction of a replica or replacement of the church, which for many members will only serve to recast the shadow of a painful history. The Stoney Nakoda have a beneficial interest in the church site pursuant to an option to purchase and wish to exercise this option and reclaim the land."
The 2004 option to purchase agreement outlines the Stoney Nakoda Nation's exclusive and irrevocable rights to purchase the land.
Stipulations include if "the lands no longer are the site of the McDougall Memorial United Church or any replica or replacement thereof, the construction of which has commenced and the lands no longer carry the designation of 'provincial historic site' and the order stating same is discharged from the title to the lands.”
If that option was explored and granted, the Stoney Nakoda Nation could purchase the land for $10.
"It is our position that regardless of the status of the historic designation, the first condition of the option agreement is not met, and therefore, the option to purchase the land for $10 would not be triggered," McQueen wrote. "The option agreement also allows the society 12 months to remedy either of the above conditions before it can be triggered."
McQueen said the discussion of the possible designation removal is for the minister, as the society is "not party to those discussions."
On Feb. 4, 2020, Alberta's director of historic places stewardship programs Larry Pearson sent an email to McQueen outlining the site's significance.
"The site is significant for its association with the McDougall Methodist Mission at Morleyville. In addition to the fire-damaged church, and the Reverend McDougall memorial headstone, the designation includes significant archeological resources ... the designation remains in place and ministerial approval would be required to rescind all or a portion of designation from the lands," Pearson wrote to McQueen, who included the email in part of the society's appeal package to the MD of Bighorn.
McQueen maintains the restoration is an act of reconciliation, noting the church’s founder, John McDougall died nine years before the residential school was established in Morley.
"To make things historically accurate, there was no residential school on the site of the Morleyville Mission. The church itself was abandoned in 1921, while the residential school in Morley was established in 1926. No-one in the McDougall family was involved in the Morley [or any other] residential school," McQueen wrote.
"The Stoney's nickname for John was 'Our Friend John.' When Elizabeth McDougall died in 1904, she was buried at the Wesley cemetery just outside Morley with six Stoney Chiefs as her pallbearers ... All of this speaks to the mutual respect between the Stoneys and the McDougall family at the time.
"Were they a part of colonization? Of course, they were, but that doesn't negate the fact that they did everything they could to protect the Stoney people and fought constantly with the federal government over its treatment of the Indigenous people in what was to become Alberta."
The Morley Indian Residential School, operated by the United Church was located in the townsite where the Morley Community School now stands, next to the Morley United Church.
Well-documented as places of physical and mental abuse to Indigenous children during the 19th and 20th centuries, there are many Nations including Stoney Nakoda that still experience the negative effects and trauma from the schools.
Many elders have spoken out, saying the restoration of the church is a reminder of the trauma inflicted on residential school survivors.
"I know there is a lot of history with the McDougalls, and even though the United Church has apologized, the McDougall Society needs to work on apologizing and hearing the other side," Elder Margaret Rider said at the MD of Bighorn appeal hearing in February.
When asked whether or not the McDougall family supports the United Church's apology to residential school survivors, McQueen noted the church itself has not been functioning since 1921, and despite its name, the McDougall Memorial United Church was actually originally part of the Methodist Church of Canada before the Methodist Church merged with the United Church of Canada.
"As of today, the 44-acre site is a provincial historic site, and has no connection to the United Church of Canada. Only one person – other than the Stoney Nakoda lawyer – has mentioned this issue to me. She is an Elder, and I have repeatedly reached out to meet with her and talk since she made that comment at the SDAB appeal hearing. Unfortunately, she has not yet responded to my requests," McQueen wrote.
"Regardless, I cannot speak for the 'McDougall Family' – whatever that is supposed to be – however, I can say that personally I do support the United Church's apology unequivocally."
When asked about how some officials have drawn on the parallels of restoring the church in the same light of First Nations or people of colour (POC) removing historic statues in America, McQueen acknowledged it is an extremely complex topic, but said she does not agree that erasing history is the right way to go.
"Being of Indigenous ancestry myself, I am keenly aware of this issue. I fully support the efforts of all people in the fight against racism. The parallels are obvious, but I would say this – I do not believe that the erasing of painful or negative history is the best way to approach this," McQueen wrote.
"My belief is that educational context should be given for all historical items, including for those with a negative context. Whether it is the statues of slave owners in the United States, or the residential school system in Canada, or the colonization of North America, I believe that society is better served by educating our children about why those things were so abhorrent and should never be allowed to occur again.
"I see this as an opportunity to provide the education necessary so that we truly can move forward to a more positive future."
According to the McDougall Stoney Mission Society website, the society has reached 80 per cent of its fundraising goal with $456,000 raised to date, out of the $574,000 goal for the restoration.
The Stoney Tribal Administration CEO said officials are still waiting to hear about the status of the request.
"We would like to have the [historic] designation rescinded – the province certainly knows our position," Robb said.