By Stephen Dafoe
Alexander – Band members line up in the powwow grounds of Alexander First Nation on a Friday morning, each member of the band having their name checked against an official list. With the name found and suitable identification provided, a $5 bill is handed to an RCMP officer in red serge to pass on to the band member along with his firm handshake. It is an annual tradition that dates back to 1876 when the Cree of Alexander or Kipohtakaw became a signatory member of the Confederacy of Treaty 6.
Although the $5 bill hardly feeds a family as it could in 1876, the symbolism behind the monetary exchange, the red-garbed Mountie, and the Treat Day process itself is what is truly important today, namely the preservation of treaty rights and the preservation of Cree culture.
“Treaty Day is very significant to a lot of the people here,” said newly elected Chief Herb Arcand. “As Treaty Indians, our grandfathers and our forefathers have signed onto Treaty No. 6, which we’re a part of. When we signed them treaties we have treaty rights. The significance of coming here and having the community gather together on Treaty Day to get their $5 is kind of symbolic. Five dollars is not a lot nowadays, but it still symbolizes that we’re Treaty Indians and we’re proud of it.”
Arcand said he has always been proud to be a Treaty Indian, and as newly elected chief, he has an even greater duty to embrace that pride and to ensure that treaties and traditions are preserved. “I have a bigger role to play in looking after the wellbeing of all our members, and the children – the unborn that are coming – to set a template where future generations can begin to look at something that’s there for them that they can build upon themselves,” he said. Part of that template includes the preservation of Cree traditions, ensuring there is always a place where ceremonies and traditions can be conducted for those living in Alexander and those who have left but come home to visit or to stay.
“As Treaty Indians, we never wanted to lose that,” Arcand said of Cree traditions. “As Treaty Indians, it’s always been brought to our attention from the elders that our treaty rights are what’s keeping us a nation, strong. We have certain ceremonies to ensure that we keep them and we pray for them in the right way.”
The Alexander chief said health, education and all treaty rights are important; however, he feels there is a constant battle as the federal government attempts to take away rights that were originally signed unto under Treaty 6. “The one that sticks out for me, and I’ve heard it a lot from the elders, is in the area of health,” Arcand said. “In Treaty 6 we have what we call the medicine chest clause. We will not allow the federal government to interpret what that is. That’s ours. We interpret what it is. But still yet, they’re trying to put their limitations on it.”
New council looking to improve community
But not all the work on the road ahead is with the federal government. Arcand and his council are looking to change how things are done in Alexander with an eye to improving the quality of life for the approximately 1,000 band members presently living there and those who would like to come home.
Arcand, who spent two terms on council in the late 90s early 2000s, spent the past few years working as a consultant helping First Nations negotiate their oil and gas leases and set up organizational structures. He began to wind things down a few months before the election to prepare for his run for council. During the campaign Arcand said he met with many band members in the community to learn more about their concerns. “We talked about a lot of the issues and stuff, and there was a lot of common issues,” Arcand said. “The most common ones we are certainly trying to address.”
Among the concerns Arcand and his council will continue working on after their swearing in ceremony Sept. 15 is communication between council and administration and between council, administration and Alexander’s band members. “There was a lack of communication in terms of everything – what is happening in the community, financially – everything,” he said. “The information wasn’t getting out. There was no community meetings and stuff.” Arcand said he anticipates the first meeting with the community will take place fairly soon, providing an opportunity for band members to ask questions and to hear answers.
Beyond communication, Arcand said roads are a big issue in Alexander, particularly the need for upgrades and gravel. “We’re in negotiations now with Aboriginal Canada to move some money that was earmarked for next year so we can begin to address the road issue,” he said. “The people can actually start to see some tangible results, that we aren’t just talking, that we are actually trying to address their concerns.”
Another area of concern is the matter of housing. Arcand explained Alexander does not get a great deal of money from Aboriginal Canada for housing; however, there is an increasing need for housing, particularly with more and more band members wanting to move back home. Arcand said 50 per cent of Alexander First Nation members live off the reserve. “We get enough to build one or two homes a year, and we have over 300 people on our waiting list to get a home,” he said. “The demand for housing is a big issue.” But the chief realizes an increase in housing will mean a decrease elsewhere. “My commitment to the community was if you want to build 10 to 15 homes a year and fix the roads, we’re going to have to make some sacrifices somewhere,” he said.
For Veteran Councillor Bernard Paul, one of two councillors to be re-elected this term, there is full agreement on the matter of housing and road conditions in Alexander. Additionally, Paul sees a coming need to expand the school. “The big kicker is the education system,” he said. “The population growth is rising quickly, so we have to get an expansion on the school to fill [the needs of] all of the kids.” Seventy per cent of Alexander’s population are under the age of 25. “They’re moving back. They want to come back to their roots. It’s getting terrible in Edmonton and they want to come back home to their values and traditions and stuff. They don’t see that too often in the city.”
First-term Councillor Marcel Arcand is working towards building Alexander into a community where those moving back and those already there can have trust in their community. The consultant and councillor said the vibe between council has been great so far and that the band office is more welcoming than ever. “Let the people see us and interact with us,” he said. “That’s one of the keys to re-establishing that trust relationship,” he said. “It really is an open-door policy and a lot of the members like that.”
Like Chief Arcand and fellow Councillor Bernard Paul, the young councillor sees treaty rights as being a key issue facing Alexander as well as the need for housing and roads. But beyond those issues, Arcand sees economic development in Alexander as key to the community’s viability. “There’s a number of issues the leaders have talked about, [one] being a small business park,” he said, adding another big key is building relationships with Morinville. “We’ve met and talked with Morinville Council, the mayor, and other people in Morinville prior, and I know the willingness is there. We’ve just got to do our part and stay consistent attending meetings and hopefully we can foster a relationship that’s going to be beneficial for everyone.”
Alexander Council will officially be sworn in during a special ceremony Sept. 15. The seven member council consists of Chief Herb Arcand, and Councillors Bernard Paul, Marcel Arcand, Kurt Burnstick, Armand Arcand, Curtis Arcand and Marty Jr. Arcand.