STONEY NAKODA – The Stoney Nakoda Nation continues to push the province to rescind the historic designation of a controversial church that neighbours the Nation.
After more than half a year of attempting to appeal development permits, appeal decisions and asking the province to reconsider the historic status of the 142-year-old McDougall Memorial Church that sits along Highway 1A overlooking the Morley townsite, the three Stoney Nakoda Chiefs are again asking the minister of culture to rescind the designation for the contentious restoration.
“In the spirit of government to government relationships, we expect to be consulted about the future of the church and surrounding land. We expect to be at the table when the future of this church and site is discussed. We were not invited,” Bearspaw Chief Darcy Dixon, Chiniki Chief Aaron Young and Wesley Chief Clifford Poucette said to Culture, Multiculturalism and the Status of Women Minister Leela Aheer in an Aug. 25 letter.
“In the spirit of reconciliation, we request that your department rescind the historic designation of the McDougall Church. And when the provincial historic rescue is revoked, the Stoney Nakoda Nation will be able to exercise their legal Option to Purchase the property and reclaim our land and our dignity. Perhaps then, the healing process can begin.”
The McDougall Memorial Church caught fire in an unsolved 4 a.m. arson in May 2017.
After the fire, the McDougall Stoney Mission Society worked with the province to find a suitable option to move forward. In June 2019, the province green-lit the restoration option as more than 80 per cent of the burnt timber was salvaged after the fire.
But in documents obtained by the Outlook, letters sent to the province as early as February show the Stoney Nakoda leadership has always strongly voiced opposition to the rebuild, stating the restoration is not an act of reconciliation, but instead a painful reminder of colonial legacy.
Since February, the Stoney Tribal Administration has asked the MD of Bighorn to stop the development permit, appealed the decision to issue the development permit to the Bighorn Subdivision and Development Appeal board and asked the Alberta Court of Appeals to appeal the permit. All requests were denied.
The Aug. 25 letter outlines the Nation’s frustration with the “democratic process” noting the outcome to date has been “disappointing and costly.”
“At a time when monuments to subjugation all over the world are being destroyed or removed, the McDougall Stoney Mission Society, without consulting the Stoney Nakoda Nation’s leadership, and in the face of overwhelming opposition, has chosen to rebuild a monument – which to many of our community stands as a traumatic and painful reminder of the colonial legacy of cultural genocide and oppression,” the three Chiefs say in the letter.
The province has yet to clarify where the request to rescind the designation sits – if the request is still being considered or if it has been dismissed.
In a July email from Michael Forian, press secretary to the office of the Minister of Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women, he said the minister recognizes places like 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.
At the time, a spokesperson for the Minister of Indigenous Relations said they were hopeful “all parties can come to an understanding to move forward.”
THE REBUILD CONTINUES
Despite the continuing and mounting pressures from the neighbouring Nation, the McDougall Stoney Society is almost done the restoration project with a grand reopening planned for Sept. 12 and 13.
In a June email from McDougall Stoney Mission Society president Brenda McQueen, she said the society has been trying to work with the Chiefs in the last three years, but has yet to receive any reply.
“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 in the email.
“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.”
McQueen noted the restoration project will include a new interpretive walk titled Through the Eyes of the Stoneys.
In the recent letter to the minister, the Chiefs acknowledge that some Stoney people choose to support the society, but note that is not the representation of the Nation or the wishes of the entire community.
“Although a representative of the ‘Society’ recently requested a meeting with the Chiefs, the Society failed to acknowledge and invite the Stoney Nakoda Nation to the table during the negotiations with Alberta Culture and Tourism and the Alberta Historic Resources Foundation regarding the future of the Church site following the fire of 2017 and hence, have not in any way, acting in the spirit of reconciliation,” Chiefs Dixon, Young and Poucette wrote.
During the August MD of Bighorn council meeting, when going through the process to extend or reallocated previously approved grants funds, Bighorn council approved $1,200 originally awarded for 2020 event programming to the McDougall Stoney Mission Society's fall grand reopening event.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has prevented us from having formal events to date at the site, out of an abundance of caution. However, our new plan for utilizing the grant money is to use it to expand the events on the weekend of Sept. 12-13 at which the newly restored church will be unveiled to the public,” Kent McQueen, of the society wrote in the request letter to council.
McQueen said the money would also allow the society to “greatly increase participation of the Stoney Nakoda Nation in the way of singers, drummers, dancers, as well as providing honoraria for additional elders.”
Titling the event, the Pathway to Peace the event is scheduled to kick off on Sept. 13 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.