Wednesday is a special day at CYM. That’s when Friends are invited to help with a local service project and then partake of the simple evening meal, with the cafeteria’s savings on the meal going to a local charity, usually the charity organizing the service project.
This year we got a chance to take part in a Battle River watershed project designed to alert the public to the need to keep hazardous waste out of storm drains and hence out of the river. The Battle River was apparently the scene of many a battle between the Blackfoot and the Cree in past centuries.
As an alternative, thanks to Canadian Friends Service Committee, Friends had the opportunity to visit Maskwacis, a 45 minute drive from Camrose. The community, with a total population of 13,000, consists of four First Nations. We visited the Samson and Montana First Nations.
We parked “downtown” within sight of the pawn shop, Lucky Dollar Food store and the bingo hall, and then entered the Samson Cree Nation Administration Building, where we exchanged introductions.
We visitors were presented with some information sheets and a gift of braided sweet grass. When you are united like a braid, you are strong, we were told.
In contrast to the warm welcome was the grief evident in the community: a long hug given to a woman who had just lost her husband, the wake going on for a youth who had died by suicide… To strengthen their sense of identity and reconnect with their past community leaders are encouraging a revival of the Maskwacis Cree language. In the local museum, where we were reminded of the near-extermination of the buffalo in the late 1800s and consequent threat to the Plains Indian way of life, we were shown an app to teach the local language, developed with the help of our guide.
Unemployment is high in the community and the Band Council is a major employer. The literature we were given soberly stated: “Death by suicide has reached epidemic proportions within the Maskwacis community. The rate of suicide for aboriginals is 2.1 times greater than the national average.” As many children are in care, the community is creating an agency to try to reintegrate some of those in foster homes.
After the museum visit, we drove to the Montana First Nation, which is accessed by an extremely rutted gravel road. The first person we saw was a young man in a black T-shirt with the words “solar training” on the back. Our guide led us up to the roof of the long building containing a gym, where we were shown six rows of solar panels. These low-maintenance panels have halved electricity costs. A federal grant was obtained for their construction and now, with a new Alberta government, the province has chipped in. This is not just an environmentally friendly job-creation project, but also a training strategy. It is the biggest First Nations solar project in Western Canada and justifiably a source of great pride to the 1000-strong Montana First Nation.
Our hosts had yet more visits in store for us. Once we were reunited with a carload of Friends who had gone astray on the way back from Montana First Nation, some of us indulged in tea and bannock, while others hastened back to campus – one driver picking up a speed ticket on the way – where the cafeteria were eager to serve us our simple supper and quit for the day.
Although not a typical service project, the visit to Maskwacis was an eye opener to us all. Several community members commented that they were rarely visited and remarked on the distorted perceptions about them circulated in the general public. A big thank you to CFSC for organizing this educational tour and to our First Nations hosts for opening up to us about their problems and their achievements.
Coldstream Monthly Meeting