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Mixed reactions at McDougall Church appeal

Following an appeal filed to the MD of Bighorn subdivision and development appeal board, the committee heard mixed reactions Tuesday (Feb. 18) night from Stoney Nakoda elders and residents to whether the McDougall Church should be restored or not.
The burned out remains of McDougall Memorial Church. RMO FILE PHOTO

BIGHORN – The rebuild of a historic 142-year-old church that was burnt down next to the Stoney Nakoda Nation is at the centre of a 'to be' or 'not to be' debate as the development permit is currently under review.

Following an appeal filed to the MD of Bighorn subdivision and development appeal board, the committee heard mixed reactions Tuesday night (Feb. 18) from Stoney Nakoda elders and residents as to whether the well-known white church along Highway 1A should be restored or not.

"There are a lot of things we are not aware of," elder Margaret Rider said at the appeal hearing in the Bighorn council chambers.

"We were not aware what the objective is from leadership ... 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."

The McDougall Stoney Mission Society received the green light from the province last June to move forward with a restoration project after salvaging 80 per cent of the original timber following the 2017 fire, which was deliberately lit.

But the celebration to restore was short-lived as the Stoney Nakoda Tribal council filed an appeal to Bighorn against the development permit for the project.

In the appeal package presented at the hearing, a letter from the lawyer’s office showed concerns were raised as early as March of last year.

"The Stoney Nakoda people feel that it is premature for the McDougall Society and Alberta Culture to speak of reconstruction of the Church given the lack of any consultation with the Stoney Nakoda Elders," a letter from the lawyer dated March 18, 2019 read. "As the McDougall Society is well aware, the symbolism that the Mission site represents is a sensitive and controversial issue."

At Tuesday night's hearing, McDougall Stoney Mission Society president Brenda McQueen said she had been attempting to connect with the Stoney tribal council for the past three years, to no avail.   

"I have repeatedly tried to contact the Stoney Nakoda council and have yet to receive a single response," said an emotional McQueen.

"I have asked the elders how to respond to the lack of response and they give me a little laugh ... any reasonable person would agree I have done everything I can to [connect]. Stoney Nakoda will not find a greater advocate on reconciliation and telling the truth itself."

In a rebuttal package presented to the appeal board, McQueen included email correspondence to the Nation where she shared 'life-changing' events.

McQueen wrote about a pipe ceremony the society held on the site on May 2018, saying she took the lessons "to heart' and wanted to "move forward together." McQueen also referenced a lunch she had at a trapper's cabin where she was presented a gift from an elder "thanking me for my working with the Stoney youth and committing us to continue this in the future."

The March 22, 2019 email also listed more than 30 different occasions in which McQueen referenced events whereby the society members built a strong relationship with the Stoney Nakoda Nation.    

"We have had several meetings with Nation members about the events that we have at the site. We actively seek their approval before we even get board approval for events. This has resulted in requests that I get involved in larger social issues on the reserve (eg, housing, health care, etc)," McQueen wrote.

During the comment period, one elder spoke about how she appreciates the events the society has been hosting, but said they respect their tribal council's wishes.

"I have attended many of the events and I am not saying it is good or bad – I appreciate what is being done," Rider said.

"But I have to respect what my leadership is doing because I am part of the Nation."

Meanwhile, other elders said they respect their leadership's decision, but said they would like to be part of the reconciliation conversations.

"I am in favour of restoring the building," Elder Philomena Stephens said.

"In the planning, we can be a part of it. I know there is history that is not good that has happened in the past, but let's put that behind and move past that."

McQueen touched on the 16 points in the original appeal, specifically the point that states, "It is the position of the Stoney Nakoda Nation that the provincial historic site designation should only be renewed if the historic significance of the site is recognized from the viewpoint of the Stoney Nakoda people, and not just from the viewpoint of the settle society, the Christian church and the McDougall Stoney Mission Society."

The Mission Society president spoke of the plans to have an interpretative walk telling the honest history of residential schools and the history of the McDougall Church, good and bad.

Lawyer Sara Louden, from Rae and Company, asked that the development permit be denied, given the permit lists the rebuild as a community building. Louden argued the building is actually for religious assembly, which is not permitted for development.

"Besides the fact, the building was and is intended to be reconstructed to be a church, it is clear from activities that it is indeed a place of religious assembly," Louden told the board.

McQueen argued the original appeal never touched on the building designation in the permit.

The appeal board, consisting of three board members from the MD of Bighorn, has 15 days to give their decision.