Charges are pending against nine people in connection with a sequence of events that resulted in a high school in central Alberta being put in a hold and secure on Friday after an off-school-grounds incident involving students that spread onto social media.
In a notice on the Ponoka Secondary Campus’ website, the school said the hold and secure was “a precautionary measure.”
The incident — which the school didn’t elaborate on — and following “social media activity” apparently happened outside school hours and off the school grounds, but students were involved, the school said.
“We want to assure you that students and staff are safe, and remain in the building attending regular classes,” the notice read.
The school said administration is working with the RCMP through the situation.
Wolf Creek Public Schools superintendent Jayson Lovell said the hold and secure came after concerning videos were posted on social media.
In one of two Snapchat videos, which were obtained by Global News, several youth can be seen in a room yelling racial slurs at Indigenous people and threatening to “scalp” someone.
The second one shows a group of youth driving in a car, also yelling racial slurs. The video has a locator sticker on it that reads “Maskwacis.”
Global News has decided not to publish the videos because of the disturbing and offensive nature of the content.
“Such content and behaviour is disturbing and disheartening and goes against all we do in Wolf Creek Public Schools in our efforts to support safe and caring schools, and work towards understanding among students,” Lovell said in a statement.
According to RCMP media relations officer Cpl. Deanna Fontaine, the videos could lead to a hate crimes investigation.
“I’m aware that there’s the nature of two separate videos that contain concerning comments that may be considered threatening and some that may be racial in nature or related to what we would investigate in terms of hate crimes,” Fontaine said.
Fontaine said officers are in the early stages of the investigation and are exploring the links to the hold and secure at the school and those involved in the videos. She added officers were told the school was put in a hold and secure because of “information that was received about a possible altercation that may have been planned to take place at the school.”
Cpl. Mike Dunsmore told Global News that although RCMP have “been able to establish that the video is related, it’s unclear exactly how it relates to the substantive investigation.”
“The hold and secure that occurred today at the Ponoka Secondary Campus was out of an abundance of caution,” he said. “The investigation identified that some students from the campus were involved. So the hold and secure is simply just a way of ensuring additional security.”
On Friday night, RCMP issued a news release that said 12 people were arrested in connection with the incidents, resulting in charges pending against three men and two youths for offences that include mischief, uttering threats and possession of a weapon.
“All five of these males were released from custody with conditions and will appear in Alberta Provincial Court on April 17,” police said.
According to RCMP, officers were dispatched to a reported disturbance in the 4800 block of 46 Street in Ponoka in the early morning hours of Feb. 22.
“The investigation revealed two groups of teenaged males met in the street and an altercation ensued,” police said.
They did not say when the arrests were made.
Police said on Friday officers made four more arrests in connection with their investigation. They said charges of mischief, uttering threats and possession of a weapon are now pending against three men and one male youth.
Police said they are still looking for another man in connection with their investigation.
“During the course of this investigation Ponoka RCMP received a complaint about two videos appearing on social media,” RCMP said. “It is believed that one of the videos is related to this current incident, while the second one does not appear to be related.
“The social media fallout from this overall situation has been unfortunate and resulted in some people not involved in either investigation to become targets of harassment. Police are asking people to refrain from vigilante actions and remind that any comments made or actions taken that are criminal in nature will be investigated accordingly.”
In an emailed statement, the Erminesken Cree Nation said “the vulgar display of racism is indicative of a deeper issue in the country and in this province,” Chief Craig Makinaw said.
“We will not condone these threats of violence; we will not escalate the situation with retaliation. We will remain strong in our culture that has been under attack since before these systemic acts of violence began against us.”
Makinaw also called on leaders of central Alberta reserves, municipalities and cities to “condemn acts of racism and to educate themselves on the issues facing Aboriginal people, including knowledge of the Treaties, adding that those offended by the videos should “not seek retribution.”
According to the school, a hold and secure is put in place when “there is an incident or potential threat outside the school.”
On Friday evening, Alberta Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson tweeted that he was “deeply disturbed by reports of racist behaviour against Indigenous Albertans involving students around Ponoka and Maskwacis.”
“At a time when tensions are high across Canada, Albertans should reject this divisiveness.”
Chevi Rabbit, a local human rights advocate, told Global News she grew up in Ponoka and attended the school that was put in hold and secure when she was a teen.
Rabbit said she believes “the school itself has done everything it can” to fight racism.
“What has to happen is to deal with the families that are racist in the community… this is outside the school,” she said.
“Ponoka and Maskwacis have done a lot of… community building over the years, and I think incidents like this set us back a generation.”
Rabbit said she believes a blanket ceremony, an interactive learning exercise that teaches people about Indigenous history, could be beneficial for the school in the wake of the incident.
“Blanket ceremonies highlight nation-to-nation building, they highlight the rich histories between communities and help everybody involved get to know each other,” she said.
Rabbit said she was both sad and angry when she saw the videos.
“I feel really bad for the Indigenous families and students that go to school here,” she said. “I think, what are they feeling as they watch people drive through their community saying that they’re going to harm them, they’re making racist comments and hateful comments — I think it would make me as a student — because I did go to school here — uncomfortable knowing that.
Rabbit said as a human rights advocate, she has had an increasing number of people approach her as of late to get help dealing with situations involving bigotry and discrimination.
“I think given the political climate right now, racism is on the rise,” she said.
–With files from Global News’ Sarah Komadina