CALGARY — A wry smile briefly crosses Lee Crowchild’s careworn face when the word “alienation” is mentioned.
He hears this particular word from so many lips these days in Alberta. It’s the place where he was born, so he understands well enough those long-standing strains and issues that exist between the province and Ottawa. However, today that age-old mistrust is blossoming anew, leading to murmurings of mutiny and separation.
Still, when it comes to alienation, Crowchild believes Indigenous people have a veritable stranglehold on what that really entails. After all, he is descended from a long line of native leaders on the western Prairies, reaching back to Alberta’s formative years as a province.
Crowchild was, until very recently, chief of the Tsuuut’ina, a First Nation of more than 2,000 residents who live in the eastern shadow of the mighty Rocky Mountains and cheek by jowl to the ultra-modern city of Calgary. (He was still chief when he was interviewed for this story, having been elected in 2016, but lost his bid for re-election on Nov. 20th) Crowchild’s dad once held that same chief mantle, as did his grandfather, after whom one of the adjoining city’s major thoroughfares, Crowchild Trail, is respectfully named.
His perspective on the recent uprising of separatist fervour in the province — Wexit being its nametag on social media — remains guarded, being grounded in both history and culture.
“Today you hear talk about alienation. But this is how we have been living through the generations. So now you are crying to be heard? So yes, it is a bit amusing,” he says.
Today you hear talk about alienation. But this is how we have been living through the generations. So now you are crying to be heard?
But such amusement quickly vanishes when he contemplates what might happen if Alberta did indeed try to separate from Canada, as an increasing number of people in the province are discussing.
This comes not from some heartfelt love his people feel for Ottawa: far from it. But Crowchild looks to history. The treaties in place with the Crown might not be perfect, but they have legal status. So, to disavow those, on the vague hope of something better? That is not an easy sell on the Tsuuut’ina reserve.
“This movement called Wexit, the Alberta one to leave Canada, is fine, but they’d have to leave the land behind and its resources as well. We didn’t sign those treaties to give them away. That is under the NRTA,” he says.
Crowchild refers to the 1930 Natural Resources Transfer Agreement, one in which Alberta has a constitutional obligation to transfer back to Canada any unoccupied Crown lands necessary to allow Canada to fulfill its treaty obligations with First Nations.
“No one ever talks to the First Nations about this. Some people now feel discriminated against by the federal government and they suppose they are talking on our behalf,” says Crowchild.
“They are not. We’re still invisible. Our frustration goes back a long way, to the time of colonization, that’s where our frustration started,” he adds.
But further north, in the very heart of the Alberta oilsands, there’s more sympathy for provincial frustrations among Indigenous people, many of whom work in the energy and mining industries.
Ron Quintal is president of the Fort McKay Metis, a group that, in May, became the first such one in Canada to declare self-governance. This was after they successfully bought from the province last year the 199 hectares of land they live on just north of Fort McMurray — another first for a Metis organization.
“In Fort McKay we sit basically on an island surrounded by (oilsands) mines,” Quintal says. “From our perspective we have been very much involved in the development of natural resources in northern Alberta and we see Alberta energy as a huge benefit to the rest of Canada. ”
“So, coming out of the federal election, a lot of Indigenous folk feel just as alienated as your everyday Albertan,” he says.
However, aspects of the burgeoning Wexit movement raise uneasy issues for Quintal and many others in the region.
“With the Wexit movement — and it is a very strong movement right now — if you read the comments from some of the people involved it is really disheartening to Indigenous people.” He says he hears undercurrents of racism and stereotyping about First Nations people, some of whom (but definitely not all of whom) have been vocal in their opposition Alberta’s oilsands and pipeline projects.
“That is why there is cautionary talk when Indigenous folk see and hear that sort of thing,” Quintal says. “That is not to say we could not be supportive of moving away from Canada. But the issue is that there are treaties that would stall all type of move away from federalism. You cannot ignore that; you have to take Indigenous folk into consideration.”
“Ultimately folk here, for the most part, just want to get by, just like everyone else in society. So what we see is an opportunity to have a really serious conversation, not just with alienation involving Ottawa, but as well with the government here in Alberta.”
“Perhaps, if there is a separation movement, then there is also an opportunity to evolve with it and take Indigenous groups into the 21st century,” added Quintal.
Like many others in Alberta he remains frustrated by some of the common misconceptions about the oilsands region.
“People think we are polluting the rivers and polluting the land, but the fact is the riverbeds and the landscape has always had the oilsands in them.”
“We used to use the tar to waterproof canoes. It has always been there and is still there. If you walk into the MacKay River you get tar on your feet: not because it is coming from an oilsands development, but because it is here naturally. Many Canadians don’t grasp that,” he added.
JP Gladu, president of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, says that the connection many First Nations people have to Alberta’s resource industry has made them feel just as frustrated as other Albertans are with the obstructionism and lack of support from Ottawa.
“Indigenous businesses are more aligned in Alberta than anywhere else in how they are feeling about the federal government and their mistreatment,” says Gladu.
As president of the Aboriginal business council, he has worked closely with oil and gas companies across Alberta to get more Indigenous firms and individuals involved in the energy business. He says that some of those based in the oilsands have been among the most forward thinking in Canada in terms of working with First Nations.
“Mark Little, the CEO of Suncor, has been a champion of champions,” Gladu says. “He has come out a number of times challenging other corporations to do better in their relationship with Indigenous peoples.”
However, Gladu reiterated that the treaties binding Canada and its relations with Indigenous people couldn’t be ignored.
“You can’t simply separate and think that Indigenous people will just come with you. Our relationship is with the federal government and not the provincial Crown. Our treaties actually bind the entire country, to a degree,” he says.
Our treaties actually bind the entire country, to a degree
However, Gladu believes there may be an ironic aspect to the current alienation and distrust between the federal government and Alberta. He sees a possibility to allow Indigenous groups to step forward as a solution, to become an honest broker between the two levels of government.
That is why he is so supportive of the recent move by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney to offer loan guarantees totaling $1 billion to First Nations businesses involved in major energy projects. Gladu sees in the funding one of the ways forward.
“Most Canadians don’t realize that the majority of Indigenous communities actually want to see resource development, because we are tied of living on the fringes and not benefiting from such development.”
“So there is a fantastic credibility and positivity that comes to the table when you bring in Indigenous leaders to co-develop resources. I think that could be the way that pipelines get built, for example.”
“This offers our country an opportunity to allow us to be real equal participants. It could come full circle so we absolutely have a crucial role in binding our country based on our treaties and, as honest brokers, to develop projects together.”
“Economic reconciliation is the stuff we talk about all the time. It is such an opportunity. I think we have a crucial role to play in it,” added Gladu.
In a country striving for reconciliation with its First Nation peoples it would be ironic indeed if those same Indigenous people were a catalyst to help reconcile the federal government and the West.