This story was intentionally held back from our online platforms until it was published in the Lakeland This Week newspaper in the current edition. Although the images, video and multiple-source story were ready last week shortly after the Thursday event, staff chose to delay the online release due to backlash and confusion created by another outlet's initial interpretation of the event.
LAC LA BICHE - The desire for a simple life has put a group of homeless people in Lac La Biche in the middle of a complex and polarizing issue, says a local activist fighting for the rights of nine men and women recently ousted from a ramshackle "tent city" in the heart of the community.
Linking Indigenous culture and a mistrust of "colonial" oppression to much of the current homeless situation in the community, Lisa Marie Bourque says the people recently forced from the private property where they were illegally squatting just want to live as their forefathers had — close to nature. The illegal camp was torn down by county crews last Thursday morning acting on municipal bylaw infractions. This was the tenth time that many of the same people had been moved from outdoor camps in recent years, she said.
"It is a way of life for them," said Bourque, who walked around the bush camp last Thursday morning, beating a ceremonial hand-drum as police and peace officers helped to disband the remaining members of the camp who had been staying in a wooded portion of the property near Lac La Biche's downtown railyard. The small camp housed nine permanent occupants in several loosely built shacks made from re-purposed wood, cardboard and nylon tarps.
VIDEO: The beating of a ceremonial hand-drum can be heard above the whine of chainsaws as RCMP and community peace officers made sure camp occupants were doing OK and ready to leave the camp. Occupants, and a few people supporting them, had been given regular reminders by police over the last month about Thursday's planned action. The camp area near the Lac La Biche downtown has been a concern for some residents and local officials due to fire hazards, debris, noise and public nuisance concerns. Video: Rob McKinley / Great West Media
Bourque's drum song, as she walked around the site, was a call for peace and hope, she said, as work crews used chainsaws to cut down trees before driving heavy equipment into the compound to level and clear the compound. "These people are connected to the land," she said.
Safety for all residents
The same people, say municipal officials were also on the land illegally and had built structures and created a situation that contravened the municipality's Community Standards Bylaw. In recent months, numerous complaints about garbage, noise, drug use and crime linked to the bush camp area had been made to the landowner and municipal officials from area residents and business owners.
The landowners of the property were issued notices regarding the bylaw violations and told that municipal crews would be going onto the land to remove the structures and clean up the area. The formal notices lead to local authorities giving the occupants a full month to leave the site. In the two weeks prior to Thursday morning's tear-down, municipal officials say peace officers made four separate visits to the camp — in addition to regular health and well-being checks — reminding occupants about the eviction.
The violations of the Community Standards Bylaw were not only for the unsightly conditions on the property, says Lac La Biche County Mayor Omer Moghrabi, but also because of safety concerns relating to the threat of fires.
"We take the safety and security of all of our residents, those that were in the camp and all of our residents, very seriously," said Moghrabi, adding that the future health and safety of the displaced camp members remains a priority. "We have our FCSS department working closely with the Out of the Elements Shelter in town to help."
Municipal officials also say that referrals through the local shelter to addictions and mental health services are available for those in need. Moghrabi says the long-term plan is to have a large-scale community response to people affected by unstable housing issues or homelessness. A transitional housing task force made up of local stakeholders has been meeting with the ultimate goal of creating transitional housing facilities and wrap-around social services. He says half a million dollars of municipal funding has been ear-marked for the project that is expected to be co-funded by provincial and federal dollars as well.
Members of the Transitional Housing Task Force include local representatives from the Lakeland Out of the Elements Shelter, the Canadian Native Friendship Centre, Métis Nation Zone 1, Portage College, the RCMP, Alberta Works, and Alberta Health Services.
While the task force was created for a long-term solution, Skylar Harpe, the director at the Lakeland Out of the Elements Shelter says there are immediate plans in place to help as many people as possible — despite the size restrictions of the shelter's current location.
"They can come to us. We might not have the room, but we can accommodate them as best we can — and not just with a place to sleep, but with clothing, food and services," she said, admitting that some people coming to the shelter have been banned from the facility in the past for improper behaviour related to addictions issues or mental health challenges." We can still can give them a meal or supplies," she said, but the safety and security of clients and staff have to come first.
Harpe said the situation with the homeless camp is complex and frustrating.
Under current provincial COVID-19 health measures, only six clients can stay overnight at the shelter. Despite the lack of space, the shelter can provide provisions for emergency shelter.
"I wish we had the room for everyone who needs it," she said, adding that her front-line staff work tirelessly to find the best solutions available for anyone who comes to their door. "We will help whoever needs it."
Not everyone will seek the shelter's help, however. Harpe said there are some who actively choose to live by their own choices.
"We can offer help, but we can't change people if they don't want it."
So, where do they go?
Back to the bush, says Bourque, who is working with the local Métis Nation of Alberta on a new plan tailored specifically for those who don't want the excess of transitional housing, or can't wait for that option to become reality.
Bourque is suggesting the idea of a formal camp area, perhaps with some amenities like running water, but primarily a treed area where they can safely rebuild their outdoor comfort zones.
"They have to rebuild again, right? These people want to live in the bush," says Bourque, connecting their current outdoor lifestyles to those of their resilient ancestors. "These are bush people. You can't take that away from them. You can't force assimilation on them ... all they need is the land, some amenities, and they'll make do."
With daily visits by resource providers for their mental and spiritual well-being, Bourqe thinks the formal. camp setting would benefit its occupants more than a conventional transitional housing facility.
"These people are connected to the land and that's where their roots are, and that's where their culture is. They need that to stay healthy, along with a couple more resources, spiritual, mental, physical and emotional resources," she said. "Putting them in a modern home, I don't think is going to work ... they belong with nature, living off the land. If it's in your blood and in your roots, you are going to go back to what you want and what you know."
Bourque doesn't think the idea is a long-term solution, but says it could be an immediate one.
"It's a comfort zone, a safety net for them to try to figure out what they want to do and what their next step is," she said.
Métis Nation support
Métis Nation of Alberta Zone 1 President Jimmy Cardinal is ready to try the idea. The MNA has a seat on the Transitional Housing Task Force and Cardinal also sees the idea of a camp as a possible short-term stop-gap measure.
He's ready for the backlash to the idea, and he's ready to counter those who say the homeless are simply being enabled by the idea.
"Before we can reach the people that want to be helped, you have to enable them for so long until they are ready," he said, explaining the plan as a slow progression that will likely help one person at a time. "If we help one at a time, if one decides to change and starts a good life, the others will look at her, their old friend saying, 'I'm doing good,' and then the next one will step up."
Cardinal believes the task force can still work toward the larger goal of creating a facility and resources, but he is also planning to present the idea about the new camp at an upcoming meeting.
"Once you get to know them, talk to them, understand them — the transitional housing will come in time, but they have to be ready for it," he said, explaining that most of the permanent homeless people are happy to choose a life without rules and schedules — like their traditional ancestors. "You can build the biggest mansion ever, but for them it means nothing because there are rules .. until then, the home in the bush is where they are comfortable."
While he understands that many people probably can't understand why people would choose that lifestyle, he has spoken to many that were in the camp and says it's what they want. He encourages community leaders to take the time to see first-hand how these people choose to live. That interaction would be good for all sides, he said.
"As leaders, let's go see them once in a while. Go see them, see where they are at. We should have done this a long time ago."
In addition to bringing the idea up at the next task force meeting, Cardinal and other MNA officials have a special meeting scheduled with Lac La Biche County council this Wednesday, April 28.
Back at the Lakeland Out of the Elements Shelter, Harpe says her staff are ready to meet any increased demands for assistance as the situation continues to unfold. And while there might still be a lot of unanswered questions right now, she says the increased attention to the overall issue of homelessness, addictions and mental health is encouraging.
"People are aware, and increasing the awareness is more important than anything right now."