“I’m really proud of our local RCMP right now,” says Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre Executive-Director Barb Courtorielle. “I don’t find any issues with them at all.” They are involved in cultural events, cultural training, and are always available when needed.
However, Courtorielle says “We (Indigenous people in the Lesser Slave Lake region) face racism on a daily basis, even when we go through drive-thrus.
Unless you are really connected with an Indigenous group, people don’t notice it.”
The Friendship Centre works with the Indigenous clients and homeless.
“We see it more here with our clients,” she says. “We see it all the time.”
One of the effects of this racism is that it is more difficult for Indigenous people to find jobs, says Courtorielle. She challenges people to notice how few Indigenous people are working in stores and businesses in Slave Lake other than for the Friendship Centre, Métis Nation and Sawridge First Nation.
“It’s been like this for years,” says Courtorielle. “I feel that if we work together as a community, we can get rid of most of this racism.” This however needs to be done by the whole community not just one group.
Courtorielle grew up in Canyon Creek. She did elementary school there, Grade 7 and part of Grade 8 in Kinuso, and the other part of Grade 8 to Grade 11 in Slave Lake. She and her sister faced racism at school, so they dropped out.
In the last few years, Courtorielle’s granddaughter also faced racism at school, she says.
The low attendance at a series of recent workshops on Indigenous culture, she says, “speaks about how much we face racism.”
Reverend Blessing Shambare is the pastor at St. Peter’s Ecumenical Church in Slave Lake. He is originally from Zimbabwe and is a black African.
“The issue of racism is not one-sided,” he says. The question is how do people from three, four or more racial backgrounds live together.
Shambare likens the type of conversation he’d like to see to a blanket exercise.
Last fall, the Keepers of the Athabasca held a blanket ceremony at the Friendship Centre. It is teaching tool in Indigenous culture in which the participants enact the roles of Indigenous people from pre-European contact to the treaties to residential school system to Sixties Scoop up to modern day including Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women Girls (MMIWG).
This was one of the cultural training sessions the Slave Lake RCMP participated in.
To Shambare, racism and ‘classism’ go hand in hand. By ‘classism’ he means putting people into classes based on income, political and social power ie. lower, middle, and upper class. Two questions, he says, exemplify his experience of racism in Canada: What do you do for a living? and where are you from?
While these questions are common, it has been Shambare’s experience that people on the street will ask him this before introducing themselves or even asking his name. Each time this happens, he wonders if the person is trying to put him in an expected economic class based on the colour of his skin.
People are usually surprised to find that he is a pastor, he says.
Shambare says talking about racism is very painful, but important.
“We need to be able to talk about it and talk with love and not hate,” he says.
Slave Lake Mosque Imam Mohamad Salman sent a statement on the mosque’s stance on racism to The Leader. It was also a theme of a recent sermon. (The full letter is on Page 10.)
“We also call out the current systemic racism and discrimination that stills exists in Canada in the year 2020 such as Bill 21 in Quebec which separate people from being able to exercise government functions purely on the basis of what they look like.
“In his final sermon the prophet said ‘Everything pertaining to the days of Ignorance is under my feet completely abolished. There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab, nor for a non-Arab over an Arab. Neither is the white superior over the black nor the black is superior over the white, except by piety.’ Then He recited from the Quran 49:13.”
Courtorielle says racism experienced by Indigenous Canadians in Slave Lake is similar to what exists across the country.
There are various books and resources on racism in Canada. One of the Grand Chiefs of a tribal council in the area recommended ‘Reconciliation on Trial: Wet’suwet’en Aboriginal Title and the Rule of Law’ by Kate Gunn and Bruce McIvor. It is available as a free e-book.
The preface starts, “why are so many Canadians surprised when Indigenous people erect blockades to defend their lands and children’s future? I think it’s because most Canadians prefer the facile narrative of national reconciliation to the uncomfortable reality of betrayal and unfulfilled promises.”