Posted on Aug 12, 2016

Visiting Communities, an Important Part of What I Do

Minister Richard Feehan visiting Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre, standing in front of display sign.

Minister Richard Feehan visiting Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre

When I became Alberta’s Minister of Indigenous Relations in February, I set an ambitious target: I would visit every First Nation and Metis Settlement in Alberta in my first year.

“It’s unrealistic,” I was repeatedly told, and not without some justification. Meetings and legislative duties can quickly devour a daytimer. And there’s a lot of highway to cover to get to all 48 First Nations and eight Metis Settlements.

But these visits – I’ve managed 21 so far – have proven vital for my work.

When I visit communities, I get to sit down and have frank conversations with Chiefs, leaders and members. I’m afforded a glimpse into contexts behind concerns. As a Minister, I can see the promise of the future, one that includes green power and vibrant health centres, fulsome consultation and innovative partnerships with government and industry.

Last week, I visited three First Nations along Lesser Slave Lake: Sucker Creek, Driftpile and Kapawe'no. Each of these nations is growing, yet straining under infrastructure needs. Like much of Alberta, global oil prices are hitting people there as well.

There are other ongoing challenges, like intergenerational trauma from the Indian Residential Schools, and families grieving missing and murdered Indigenous daughters or mothers.

But there’s much to be hopeful about. We talked about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, about the Climate Leadership plan, as well as innovative pilot programs that show the possibilities of overcoming jurisdictional push and pull.

It would be unrealistic to expect Albertans to visit reserves and settlements as often as I do. But I encourage you to stop by the Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre, as I did last week.

The Friendship Centre is informed by Indigenous values and culture, but it’s also non-partisan and blind to status, lineage and religion. They help everybody and anybody, with the goals of rehabilitation, healing and understanding through cultural awareness.

Inside that unassuming brown brick building on 6th Avenue, you’ll find a shop selling moccasins, jewelry and art. Sales of handicrafts support Indigenous artists from the region. The money also helps fund the Friendship Centre’s programming, including a food bank, clothing for families and outreach for homeless people.

Between April and June, typically slower months, the Friendship Centre had over 4,200 points of service. Six hundred people were helped through the food bank. The centre is renovating a 1,600 square foot space for a youth drop-in centre. And when the fires raged in Fort McMurray, the Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre flung open its doors to evacuees.

Through work with governments, RCMP and non-profits, they are finding ways to make Slave Lake a better place.

They love to have visitors, too. Volunteers and donations of toys or food are welcome. If you’re lucky, you might visit on a day when bannock is served.

I’m thankful for the insights I gained last week visiting communities around Lesser Slave Lake. Before my first year is through, I will be back along these shores to visit other communities.

It’s important for us all to get to know each other better. Take it from me, it’s more than an ambition. It’s a vital part of all that I do.