Finding an answer to the larger issues of systemic racism and rural crime wasn't the focus at a Sunday afternoon community meeting in Hylo — but the three-hour discussion was said to be an encouraging first step towards those goals — and many others facing the rural community.
Just under 100 people met at the Hyo-Venice Agripex for the meeting called by Hylo-area residents who say they are fed up, frustrated and fearful of crime that has taken hold of their community. The meeting comes a month after a social media crime watch page for the area came under attack for comments posted about a suspicious person spotted on a Hylo-area property. In a warning to other residents, the man's description included that he was native. Subsequent posts contained graphic and violent comments about dealing with criminals. The link between the description and the violent comments created a racial backlash that lead to death threats, national media coverage, and the firing of one man from his municipal role as a Hylo Fire Department's firefighter.
As Sunday's meeting also discovered, the incident has raised the focus of several other issues, including police service in rural Alberta, the pitfalls of social media, the failings of the justice system, drug and addiction issues, rural cellular coverage, and economic hardships. Each topic was touched on during the meeting that saw local residents offering their personal stories about crime and fear in their community.
"You know what? It woke us up, didn't it? It woke us all up," said Jimmy Cardinal, the president of the Region 1 Metis Nation of Alberta and one of the people invited to the event. "We are here today to talk about it, and by doing that we have also found the weaknesses — our telephones, the response from police — we have many weaknesses and we all have a lot of work to do."
Cardinal's presence at the meeting, along with Buffalo Lake Metis Settlement Chairperson Stan Delorme and Resource One Aboriginal Business Association president Shaun McDonald showed that some racial tensions are also part of the issues needing to be addressed.
McDonald said he hopes the attention to the crime and social media backlash serves as a place to begin an education process for all residents.
"Education is for all parties to learn about each other, not dividing and not stereotyping or God-awful racism," he said, drawing on a colourful image to get his point across. "To me, it's kind of like a rainbow with all the different colours reaching into the sky. It's a beautiful sight with the separate colours, but together as one is how the Creator intended it to be."
Starting from a point where all community members are working together, said Delorme, is the best way to combat the crimes and unrest taking place across the region.
"If we are all talking about combating crime, we should do something together as good neighbours," Delorme said, explaining that Buffalo Lake has recently experienced a big increase in community crime. "We all need to keep talking. Communication is one of the best tools we have."
Meeting organizer Janet Meardi said those communication channels were affected by social media comments on rural crime that became "twisted" into a racial issue.
"The story got twisted away from crime in the area — the real issue — to a racial problem," she said, explaining that drugs and crime in the community have residents fearing for their safety, but also willing to fight to protect themselves.
One woman in the audience, a single mother of four children says she sleeps with a loaded gun after three armed men recently broke into her home while her family was sleeping.
"I have a 17 year-old boy who was ready to die for his mom and his family," the woman said, fighting back tears.
Her story was one of many shared during the meeting, showing the fear and frustration of residents regarding, crime, the justice system, drugs and police responses.
Fort McMurray - Cold Lake Member of Parliament David Yurdiga hopes Sunday's meeting will be a fresh start towards finding solutions for the Hylo area and the region.
"What happened in the past happened in the past, and now what can we do to move forward," he said, expressing his own opinion that the "catch-and-release" justice system is in "disarray", while offering his federal and local connections to help move ahead.
Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche provincial MLA Laila Goodridge says the Alberta government is already taking steps to target issues with addictions, the justice system and cellular mobility in rural Alberta.
Saying that rural crime is a very serious issue in all of Alberta — but in particular in the northeast region, Goodridge said 4,000 addiction and mental health treatment beds and spaces will be created across the province in the next three years. An additional 50 Crown Prosecutors are also being hired to make the justice system more efficient.
A new partnership with Telus and Lac La Biche County will also improve cellular service for the Hylo area, says Lac La Biche Mayor Omer Moghrabi, assuring that the multi-million dollar project will increase coverage with more cellular tower access for rural areas. The mayor hopes to update communities about the phone services, policing plans, community crime initiatives and more action plans at future community meetings like Sunday's.
"We are going to be doing a bunch of symposiums like this one that are going to involve all our communities around us," he said.
Lac La Biche County's Hylo-area councillor George L'Heureux hopes to have a follow-up meeting with Hylo residents again before Christmas.
"We are going to take what we've learned here and build on it. Hopefully we can have another one of these meetings in three months and hear all those success stories of how it got better," he said, pledging his own efforts. "Let's all work together and let's build a safer community for everybody."
* For more stories and images from Sunday's meeting, go to www.lakelandtoday.ca through the course of the week.