October 14, 2019

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Healing the people, healing the land

Resilient Fox Lake Cree Nation — still wearing the scars from decades of Hydro development and abuse — on the mend after trauma of manhunt for B.C. murder suspects

One night, halfway through the manhunt that had seized their small northern First Nation, forcing parents to corral restless children inside homes and stealing the joy from long summer nights, the Fox Lake Cree gathered to listen.

For days, they’d been bracing against the fear that had swept over their community. It started not long after they’d spotted a trail of smoke drifting up over the tops of the trees on July 22, rising from an SUV left burning beside the road. That vehicle, they soon learned, was linked to two young men accused of three murders in B.C.

News reports described the place the SUV was found as being “near Gillam.” In truth, it was about 65 kilometres away from the town, but just 15 from the turn-off to Bird, the 98-acre reserve that is home to roughly 300 Fox Lake Cree members. They had to drive past that spot on Highway 290 every time they went into town.

Then came the searchers, military and RCMP, clad in body armour, traipsing through bush, clearing buildings left empty for renovations. Then came a crush of media, dozens of reporters from across Canada. Then came the strange hush that fell over Bird, as regular grocery shuttles were halted and worried parents kept kids inside.

One night, halfway through the manhunt that had seized their small northern First Nation, forcing parents to corral restless children inside homes and stealing the joy from long summer nights, the Fox Lake Cree gathered to listen.

For days, they’d been bracing against the fear that had swept over their community. It started not long after they’d spotted a trail of smoke drifting up over the tops of the trees on July 22, rising from an SUV left burning beside the road. That vehicle, they soon learned, was linked to two young men accused of three murders in B.C.

News reports described the place the SUV was found as being "near Gillam." In truth, it was about 65 kilometres away from the town, but just 15 from the turn-off to Bird, the 98-acre reserve that is home to roughly 300 Fox Lake Cree members. They had to drive past that spot on Highway 290 every time they went into town.

Then came the searchers, military and RCMP, clad in body armour, traipsing through bush, clearing buildings left empty for renovations. Then came a crush of media, dozens of reporters from across Canada. Then came the strange hush that fell over Bird, as regular grocery shuttles were halted and worried parents kept kids inside.

"That was eerie," Raymond Neckoway says, chatting over the phone last week.

The Toyota Rav4, driven by Kam McLeod, 19, and Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, was found burned out near Fox Lake Cree Nation.

LOGAN ANDERSON PHOTO

The Toyota Rav4, driven by Kam McLeod, 19, and Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, was found burned out near Fox Lake Cree Nation.

In Bird, Neckoway was concerned. A social work professor at Lakehead University, he had arrived in the community just days earlier to begin his one-year sabbatical. After 33 years away, it was a chance to reconnect and spend time with family; he’d grown up in Bird before it was even a reserve, back when it was just a handful of houses.

At first, being back home had come as a breath of fresh air. After decades living and working in Ojibwe territories of Ontario, he’d revelled in being surrounded again by Cree speakers. He went out on the land, along the banks of the Limestone and Nelson rivers and let childhood memories of fishing and setting snares come rushing back.

Now, as he felt the tension the manhunt had strung through the community, he knew they needed to find a way to bring Fox Lake together. His aunt Linda Neckoway asked what they could do; in crisis situations, he told her, it is always isolation and misinformation that pose the greatest risks. They needed to gather.

So one afternoon, the community lit a bonfire and raised a makeshift tent to ward off the rain. They grilled hotdogs and hamburgers, and kids came out of their houses to play again. And they made space to talk and to listen, to share information and just talk about all the things that they felt.

"If you’re isolated with those thoughts, you don’t know if others are thinking the same thoughts," Neckoway says. "You hear others expressing the same ideas, there’s a relief, a catharsis."

The bonfire meetings became a key ritual of enduring the manhunt. Under the tent, community members devised schedules for kids to play at each other’s houses, warding off the cabin fever that was starting to set in.

Most of all, they found that — held together by the comforting glow of the fire— they could still laugh.

"Finally, they’re looking for white guys," someone joked. "The tables have turned!"

The laughter was healing. For many in Fox Lake, the sight of a small army of police trodding over Cree land brought back painful memories; in the 1960s, Manitoba Hydro and the town of Gillam landed on top of their tight-knit community by the railroad tracks and brought a shock of disruption with them.

For years, Fox Lake members had reported suffering abuse at the hands of Hydro workers and RCMP. They’d told about men being beaten by police and women being sexually assaulted; some of those allegations were featured in the Clean Environment Commission’s report into the effects of Hydro development that was released last August.

Once, maybe, a manhunt like this would have knocked the community back further. The fact that it didn’t, Fox Lake CEO Robert Wavey says, is testament to how far they’ve come. The community has made strides in healing since the shock of the first four decades of Hydro development, he believes, and it shows.

Province's silence deafening on First Nation

One year after the province announced an investigation into allegations of sexual assault and abuse that swirled around hydroelectric development near Gillam, Fox Lake Cree Nation leaders say they are still waiting for critical information from the province they need to move forward. 

Despite repeated letters and phone calls to government ministers, band leaders say, the province has not answered questions about the initial direction given to investigators, or about what mental-health resources would be provided to support survivors who choose to share their story.

 

One year after the province announced an investigation into allegations of sexual assault and abuse that swirled around hydroelectric development near Gillam, Fox Lake Cree Nation leaders say they are still waiting for critical information from the province they need to move forward. 

Despite repeated letters and phone calls to government ministers, band leaders say, the province has not answered questions about the initial direction given to investigators, or about what mental-health resources would be provided to support survivors who choose to share their story. 

As a result, there has been little movement on the pledged investigations. 

“We put out conditions on our participation, and none of them have been addressed or even responded to, really,” Fox Lake CEO Robert Wavey said in an interview at the band’s Winnipeg office last week. 

In August 2018, the province released a report by the Clean Environment Commission that studied the impacts of Manitoba Hydro development in the North. The report included testimony from 12 Fox Lake members, who spoke at length about abuses they suffered following Hydro’s arrival in their community in the 1960s. 

Band members testified to their memories of how, as the once-tiny town of Gillam was swamped by more than 4,000 largely temporary Hydro workers, Cree residents were subjected to racist attacks, including sexual assaults on women and girls and police brutality at the hands of RCMP officers. 

Fox Lake leadership was not notified in advance that the report was to be made public. Since its release, Wavey said, more community members have stepped forward to report past experiences of abuse and mistreatment, during a period of time stretching over several decades. 

In the wake of the report’s release, the province asked the RCMP to investigate the allegations. As RCMP members were also subject of the allegations, it referred that request to two outside agencies, the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba and the Ontario Provincial Police.

Since then, contact between Fox Lake Cree Nation and both agencies has been “cordial,” Wavey said, and the agencies have been respectful not to push ahead on the investigation without Fox Lake’s consent and invitation.

In early April, two OPP representatives flew to Gillam, where they met about 20 Fox Lake members for an initial information session. At that meeting, Spence said, investigators indicated they would be looking at events that occurred primarily in the 1960s, a fact that frustrated many Fox Lake members. 

“They (OPP) didn’t realize it was numerous decades of impact from hydroelectric projects had on Fox Lake Cree Nation,” Spence said. “They were able to see that there were generations of members that attended the public meeting, some people in their 70s to their early 20s.” 

That is part of the reason Spence is asking the province to clarify the scope of mandate it referred to RCMP. He has written to Indigenous Affairs Minister Eileen Clarke, Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires and Premier Brian Pallister directly, asking for clarification on that, and the mental-health resources issue. 

Those communications, Spence said, have gone largely without response. 

“I am disappointed in terms of the Province of Manitoba,” he said. “They haven’t explained the scope of the mandate, the issue of the report... and they have not provided any resources for Fox Lake. So many of us live off-reserve, in Churchill, Gillam and Thompson, and are seen as the jurisdiction of the province.

“So, they have a moral and financial responsibility for us as Manitobans. This is why we reached out to them, to say that we are Manitobans first of all and they have obligations to us, especially the ones residing in the town of Gillam.”

Despite the wait, Spence and Wavey said they are still hopeful that the investigations, if and when they proceed, could be ultimately healing for community members, even by simply providing official corroboration of the harms Fox Lake’s people have testified to experiencing. 

“I don’t think anybody really expects charges to be laid, but certainly, they wanted the stories that they’ve been telling for decades validated,” Wavey said. “That’s what the storytellers want: someone to validate that story, and confirm that it’s true.”

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca 

"Most of the things we’ve seen today in the community are as a result of our own internal endeavours to address our healing needs, and the needs of the people," Wavey says. "We’ve really shown the resilience of the people to be able to get to where we are today. It’s changed a lot of the people."

Neckoway, too, had noticed that change. When he left the community in 1986, after years working as an addictions support worker, he was "burnt out," he says. At the time, it felt like the community was frayed, as if there were few people he could turn to for assistance; so many people were wrestling with their own trauma.

As the manhunt progressed, he could see how much that had shifted. Fox Lake has been without a band constable since early 2015, after the Harper government pulled funding; in the absence of police to do the job, community members stepped up during the manhunt to help the RCMP searchers, and organize safety patrols of Bird.

"There’s a sense of pride, and a sense of intentionality of wanting to change the story and the history and take control, and being the author of your own history," Neckoway says. "That’s what I see now that I’ve been back."

Finally, on Aug. 7, 2 1/2 weeks after the manhunt around Fox Lake started, the two suspects’ bodies were found in dense brush not far from the banks of the Nelson River. It was finally over, and a palpable sense of relief swept over the community. That pervasive feeling of foreboding lifted; the Fox Lake Cree had their summer back.

"Most of the things we’ve seen today in the community are as a result of our own internal endeavours to address our healing needs, and the needs of the people." - Fox Lake CEO Robert Wavey

How this chapter will fit into the story of Fox Lake, thousands of years long and still unfolding, is too soon to say.

There is much work ongoing: as part of his sabbatical, Neckoway is helping the community implement its wellness plan. He’s devised a series of workshops on everything from dealing with shame to learning to read Cree syllabics, and there are also plans to further strengthen counselling supports in the community.

And they will heal from this, too. On Aug. 20, the community held a ceremony at the place where the burning SUV had been found. They stoked a sacred fire, and held prayers in both Cree and Christian spiritual traditions. At night, they held a feast, to honour everyone in the community who had worked so hard to get them through the difficult period.

Fox Lake Chief Walter Spence

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Fox Lake Chief Walter Spence

"I think they were able to express their emotions, the turmoil they all went through," Fox Lake Chief Walter Spence says. "There’ was some level of sadness, because it is a sad story coming to an end. There were thoughts about the parents of the victims and their families, and condolences."

Now, Neckoway says, when people remember smoke at that lonely section of Highway 290, they won’t think first of the vehicle that brought fear to their territory. They will remember instead the second fire, the one where they talked about how they felt, and marked how it had brought them together.

"Fox Lake was reclaiming the land, and those effects that those young men had on that land," he says. "They were claiming healing, and claiming the history that no matter what they did, it was temporary. The history that Fox Lake is asserting of living off the land, and for the land to be at peace.

"That tells me there’s an optimism, and a brighter future that Fox Lake is going to have."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

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