LAC LA BICHE — Speaking openly about the proposed Bonesville encampment site project, Jason Ekeberg, vice-president of Métis Nation Region 1, says a sense of pride needs to be put in the community’s back pocket, so a collective conversation can take place about homelessness.
A formal encampment designed to give individuals facing homelessness in Lac La Biche County a safe space to live off the grid while still accessing services and support was proposed by leaders from the Métis Nation to council in May.
Provincial MNA President Audrey Poitras, MNA Region 1 President Jimmy Cardinal and Ekeberg addressed council after the latest ‘tent city’ was dismantled by peace officers and county crews in April.
The most recent event sparked public conversation on how the County deals with chronic homelessness.
Ekeberg says, the lack of progress and repeated relocation of homeless individuals is why the MNA decided to get involved as a community partner. “What I am finding, is nobody wants to make a decision and it's very unfortunate. (The County) has worked on this for four years and they haven't come up with a plan.”
Previous attempts to address the ongoing issue of homelessness were unsuccessful because there is a disconnect between decision makers and those who are affected by homelessness, says Ekeberg.
“They don't understand it because they don't know them,” he adds.
Explaining that many of the people facing homelessness in the community are Indigenous, the MNA vice-president said, “Regardless of what background or group an individual is from, support needs to be shown and given.”
“What we're dealing with is intergenerational trauma, and a lot of this trauma — and I'll say it — especially with the Indigenous Peoples, does stem back to the way they were treated, the way they were raised and a lot of that reverts back to the residential schools and the abuse they suffered. It's unfortunate, but it does exist to this day, and it still exists.”
If individuals feel supported and respected, they will begin to open up and that’s how the cycle ends, he says. “It's actually happening as we speak; the cycle is breaking. It's just a matter of time... This is not going to happen with this generation, this is going to take a couple of generations.”
Having the community’s support and involvement plays a role in solving the societal and systemic issue, he says.
“No matter where you live — it's everybody's issue.”
On July 13, private collaborations between the two parties resulted in a one-dollar lease for the duration of one year, with the location for the encampment project being proposed at a municipally owned plot of land in the Bonesville subdivision, similar to a project carried out in Grand Prairie.
The Grande Prairie project saw the improvement in quality of life for the individuals who stayed at the site, with some transitioning into their own homes and re-entering the workforce, said Ekeberg.
“There's some very some very huge success stories, where people were homeless for so many years and they have people who actually transitioned. They have jobs and they have homes now — that's success, man — that's huge. All they did was show some support.”
According to Ekberg, the goal is to provide a safe and monitored area where registered individuals residing in the encampment can remain independent without fearing displacement, while also accessing needed treatment and other resources.
Although many concerns have been raised about the safety and wellbeing of individuals living at the site, Ekeberg says, “a lot of Indigenous Peoples are comfortable when they are living on the land. They feel spiritually connected... A lot of people don't understand that, but that's a huge thing and that they can be connected to the Earth.”
Ultimately, they just want to be safe, secure and left alone, he says.
The MNA is currently working on a way to provide some structures for individuals who will be living at the site. “We want give them a place so they're out of the elements, and they have their own place to stay. That's one big thing — once they get a sense of security, they'll be comfortable, and we can start there.”
Lac La Biche County will also contribute $60,000 to the project to fund services such as portable outhouses, a dumpster and waste removal, access to community programs, and transportation for registered camp members. Bonesville residents will also be able to take advantage of the busing services between the encampment site and the Hamlet of Lac La Biche.
Lack of community consultation
However, support for the Bonesville encampment project has not been unanimous among community members.
Due to the sensitive nature and privacy concerns related to the topic, plans and conversations were held behind closed doors. Property owners of Bonesville and Beaver Lake Crescent were only informed of the decision after the lease agreement was announced publicly in mid-July.
On Aug. 3, council received an informal petition from Bonesville residents opposing the encampment site, stating they had not been properly consulted and there were concerns of public disruption and increased crime.
According to County administrators, the unofficial petition contained 19 signatures. However, it is unclear how many of the signatories are among Bonesville’s 25 property owners.
Ekeberg, says he understands residents' frustration and hesitation, but believes these concerns boil down to lack of communication and understanding of the overall project.
Now that the short-term strategy is in the public domain, Ekeberg hopes fears can be eased through information and discourse.
Originally against the Bonesville site because of its five kilometre distance away from an urban centre, Ekeberg says the location has actually created a safer situation both for the individuals residing at the camp, but also the surrounding community.
“In the beginning I didn't really like the idea because it's too far and I didn't want people walking on the highway. But in a way, it's kind of a blessing because it will keep (individuals not registered) at the site separate.”
Ekberg explains, “Whoever is going to stay at this encampment has to be registered with us. If they don't register with us, they don't stay there... What we're facing now in this community is most people who cause the disturbances actually have homes. They have places to go, they just chose the lifestyle. So those are the ones that are creating havoc.”
Although, Ekeberg admits some individuals relocated to the site may not stay, more than likely, other individuals will come to the site seeking a safe place.
“There are more people that will come out. It's not going to be just a select few and then we're done with them — it's an ongoing process, where we have to provide the spiritual wisdom for them, but we will have to transition them slowly,” he adds.
When it comes to the overall success of the project to combat homelessness in the county, Ekeberg says, “Time is the answer when it comes to this, because in time things will change. But it has to take time and people have to be committed.”
Going forward the MNA vice-president says he would like to see more conversations taking place.
“Let's not hide anymore. There's no reason to hide.”