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Slave Lake councillor apologizes for ‘stop feeding them’ comments toward homeless community

Click to play video 'Slave Lake councillor makes controversial remarks about Indigenous homeless people in community' Slave Lake councillor makes controversial remarks about Indigenous homeless people in community
WATCH ABOVE: Slave Lake Coun. Joy McGregor makes controversial remarks about Indigenous homeless people at a Sept. 8 council meeting. After backlash from the community, she apologized for the language she used – Nov 9, 2020

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said the meeting was Sunday night. The meeting actually took place on Sept. 8. This story has been updated and 630 CHED regrets the error.

After a northern Alberta Cree Nation called for a boycott of Slave Lake’s economy, a town councillor is backtracking on statements she made during the town’s council meeting on Sept. 8.

Councillor Joy McGregor was providing an update on the situation surrounding those living with homelessness when she suggested the people and council of Slave Lake need to do some “solid work to get them home.

“We need to stop being so nice to them. We need to stop feeding them, we need to stop doing all these wonderful things.”

Read more: $3.7M of funding announced for 12 housing and homelessness projects across rural Alberta

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During the meeting, McGregor said she knew she was going to get pushback for the comments, saying she knew there would be people who would be “all over down my throat for it,” but said the homeless community needs to be accountable too.

“I’m sure not all of them want to live in the bush either. But how do they get home? And how can we help them get home? So that’s a big issue.”

After McGregor’s comments came to light on social media on Sunday, a neighbouring Cree Nation issued a news release urging people to boycott the community of Slave Lake, saying the comments reflected a “gross or willful ignorance about the root causes of the problem, as well as a troubling lack of will to come together to resolve these issues in partnership with First Nation.”

The chief called on Driftpile members to move away from supporting Slave Lake’s economy and said the nation would not make any further investments in Slave Lake until it received an apology for the “callous, cruel and racist comments made by Councillor McGregor.”

Click to play video 'Slave Lake councillor criticized for controversial homeless comments' Slave Lake councillor criticized for controversial homeless comments
Slave Lake councillor criticized for controversial homeless comments – Nov 9, 2020

Chief Dwayne Laboucan spoke with Global News on Monday, saying the comments hit home.

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“We shouldn’t be talking about people like this,” he said.

“I hate to use the word racism, but obviously it’s still out there and it’s time that Indigenous people stand up and start fighting back right now.

“We’re tired of being at the end of those so-called statements that people always say. It was time to do something about it. We’re tired of just standing still and doing nothing.”

Read more: Temporary homeless shelters burn to ground in Wetaskiwin

On Sunday night, McGregor wrote a Facebook post seemingly defending her comments, saying the public only sees parts of the discussion.

“As a human being and town councillor, I’m still getting used to the fact that the public only sees two of our meetings live on social media: the weekly council meetings and the monthly MPC meetings,” she said.

“As council, we are well aware of what is happening before meetings became live. This includes our initiatives and partnerships being taken on by the town, the homeless coalition, as well as the Slave Lake Native Friendship Center.”

But on Monday morning, she backtracked on her comments in another Facebook post.

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“I acknowledge that I have upset many people by using language that was inconsiderate.

“If I had the language that I now know I need to learn, I would have approached this situation completely different,” she wrote. “I am deeply sorry to you all and those affected by poor choice of language and the feelings you have felt since the September town council meeting.”

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Closure of homeless and addiction support McCullough Centre baffles residents, workers: ‘They have nowhere to go’ – Oct 23, 2020

McGregor goes on to say she understands she needs to “welcome ways to unlearn racism,” as well as remembering she represents the community at large.

Laboucan said he would be open to sitting down with McGregor to not only try and solve Slave Lake’s homeless problem, but also to educate her further.

“We just need to have more education and stop, at the end of the day, stop being like this,” he said.

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“We’re all here to live a happy life and do the best we can on this earth. There’s no reason — there’s no more room for that kind of stuff in this time and era of the world.

Read more: Coronavirus: Alberta commits additional $48M to homelessness supports

Slave Lake Mayor Tyler Warman echoed McGregor’s apology during a news conference Monday afternoon.

“(I apologize) to the Indigenous communities near and far that we have left you with this impression that this is the way our council thinks and how we base our decisions,” he said. “We are sorry you don’t have a clearer picture of what our people, our community and our council are all about and what we stand for. But I promise that we are going to do our best to show you in the weeks ahead.”

Warman said multiple times he thought McGregor’s comments were inappropriate and not correct, but, despite being asked several times, never said whether he thought they were racist.

Instead, he said whether the language was racist wasn’t his position to “understand or take.” He also said he didn’t think there was systemic racism in Slave Lake, but said it, like every community, does deal with racism.

The mayor said the situation made him realize he has to think about how he reacted to the comments.

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“I will own that maybe I should have said something more then,” he said about how it’s been two months since the meeting before he made any comment about them. “I will own that maybe I should have spoke up and said, ‘That’s not appropriate.’”

Warman said he also needs to own his wording when he makes these type of statements and will commit to working on that.

Click to play video 'Blanket Alberta in Warmth campaign collects blankets for the homeless' Blanket Alberta in Warmth campaign collects blankets for the homeless
Blanket Alberta in Warmth campaign collects blankets for the homeless – Nov 5, 2020

He said he hasn’t spoken to Laboucan yet, but said he will be reaching out to the neighbouring communities to apologize for the comments and to learn more about how they can move forward with those neighbours, as well as the Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre.

McGregor also started the Nov. 10 council meeting with a statement saying she has spent time reflecting on the experience and impact it has had on herself and others.

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“I want to start by apologizing directly to the First Nations of Loon River, Whitefish, Atikameg, Peerless, Trout and the community of Wabasca. To go a step further, though, I recognize my comments have hurt Indigenous people and communities near and far. These nations, these people are my community neighbours, our friends and many of the people in my own community,” she said.

“My comments were not meant to be hurtful, to attack, to marginalize or to be hurtful in any nature. After reflection, I realize they have and I can understand why those communities are disappointed in me as I am disappointed in myself.”

She said she recognizes racism exists in the world and that Slave Lake is no exception.

“Although never my intention, my comments have been labelled as this and after reflection, I acknowledge my statements were unacceptable. I acknowledge I have let myself down, my community down, the region and its neighbours down.”

“I am thankful for the support of my council and this community who are judging me for all I do and not just the mistakes I make. They know I believe in learning, growing and moving forward, which I am committed to and always have been.”

McGregor said she will seek “a higher level of understanding” to repair relationships and rebuild trust.

Barb Courtorielle is the executive director of the organization and she said McGregor’s comments were hurtful.

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“It’s really hard to swallow that old pill of ‘send them home,’” she said.

“They are part of our community and have been here for many years.”

She had applied to the province to turn the provincially-owned building she operates into a homeless shelter. The government told her the program was the kind of thing they were looking to invest in and Courtorielle took the request to rezone her building to town council.

The request was denied.

“I wasn’t impressed at all.”

Read more: Wetaskiwin commits $65K to open emergency shelter

Over the last two years, Courtorielle says the homeless community has lost six people. Just last winter someone came down with pneumonia and died. Over the years, clients of the friendship centre have frozen to death in the cold, she said.

Courtorielle said it’s hard to get a count of how many people are living with homelessness in Slave Lake because it’s a transient community. She thinks, at any given time, there are between 15 and 29 people living rough.

“When words like that are spoken, it hurts everybody,” Courtorielle said of McGregor’s comments. “It doesn’t just hurt the friendship centre; it hurts the whole community because it sets us back.”

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Global News has reached out to McGregor and will update this story if a response is received.