In half a page of the Rocky Mountain Outlook (Sept. 3 2020, p. 6) reporter Jenna Dulewich neatly summarizes the controversy concerning reconstruction of the McDougall Memorial Church near Morley.
She states the position of Stoney Nakoda chiefs Dixon, Young and Poucette by quoting their statement to Leela Aheer, provincial minister of Culture, Multiculturalism and the Status of Women.
She also quotes Brenda McQueen, descendant of the McDougall missionaries and head of the McDougall Stoney Mission Society, who is determined to raise the church building from the ashes of a fire that destroyed it in 2017. The recent Outlook article is a balanced, informative account of a local Bow Valley issue that has national, even international resonance.
For the last three years since the building burned, Stoney Nakoda leaders have repeatedly addressed the provincial government, asking for reallocation of the church land, refusing to accept reconstruction of the church building.
Their reasoning? The McDougall church raises the spectre of the residential school that was also part of the mission.
During its eight decades of existence, members of the Stoney Nakoda Nation steadily opposed this school. Crowded and makeshift premises, poor food, poor clothing, at times no classroom instruction whatever were combined with severe punishment and sexual abuse – the same conditions that were recounted over and over again to the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission a few years ago.
The Stoney Nakoda chiefs state their position in measured language that recalls the Commission’s mandate and findings. “In the spirit of reconciliation, we request that your department rescind the historic designation of the McDougall Church.”
Their demand is clear, modest and specific. In response, the provincial government and Ms. McQueen serve up flummery.
“Our government continues to value the relationship with the Stoney Nakoda people,” declares an official of Ms. Aheer’s ministry.
For Ms. McQueen, raising the church again is “an opportunity to provide the education [by whom? to whom?] necessary so that we can truly move forward to a more positive future.”
These are vapid, empty phrases that strip the issue of its important historical context and allow the provincial government to ignore the chiefs’ request for as long as it takes to replace the church building on the controversial site.
Ms. McQueen is aware, though reluctant to admit, that her plan to rebuild the McDougall church is considered unacceptable by the very people for whom the mission was established.
In interviews and on her website she insists that the rebuild is a “restoration,” not a reconstruction. She has to do this to preserve the fiction that the new building will somehow still be the old building on the original historic site.
By more linguistic manipulation, she redefines the decisive event, the fire that reduced the building to a charred shell. The 2017 fire has become a new symbolic fire: “The flame has been rekindled, and with all of us working together that flame will flicker into life,” she writes on her website.
These verbal tricks are verbal abuse; they go against the chiefs’ logic and prevent any chance of fair discussion and negotiation.
According to Ms. McQueen, an interpretive walk on the building site would view the fire event and the missionary past “through the eyes of the Stoneys.” This walk is planned as an act of reconciliation, according to Ms. McQueen.
“Not in any way,” say chiefs Dixon, Young and Poucette.
Yet the provincial government, for its own reasons, has bought the missionary view and refuses to acknowledge the chiefs’ heartfelt and reasonable position. While the government stands by, the new building nears completion.
The McDougall Stoney Mission Society is fully confident, for some reason, that the government will continue to decide in its favour.
It’s not hard to see where the story might go from here.
The next step might be a gesture or two of civil disobedience – a roadblock, say, of the 1A Highway by the new church, or some other obstruction.
If such gestures are ignored in their turn, then history might well be repeated.
“We’ve always worried about this church and where it is,” a member of the site’s board of directors told the Calgary Herald. “It’s so vulnerable out here, away in the middle of nowhere.”
Not “nowhere” but next to the reserve, the mission’s painful past still felt by those who live within sight of the new building.