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Council's tabling decision leads to backlash from Cochrane Rotary Club, Indigenous community members

“It’s very disappointing to hear comments that perhaps are uneducated in the full history of Indigenous people in the community,” Engdahl said. “And I know it might be hard for Indigenous people to hear those comments.”
Town council meeting capture
Some Cochranites were disappointed after a recent tabling decision by town council to pledge funding support to a proposed Indigenous Centre. File photo/The Cochrane Eagle

The decision by Cochrane town council to table the discussion regarding the Indigenous Placemaking Initiative at their Oct. 24 regular council meeting has sparked backlash in the community.

Last month, the Rotary Club of Cochrane requested funding support from the town for its Indigenous Placemaking initiative. They asked for the subsidized provision of space via a phased approach, wherein the town would contribute funds from 2023 to 2025. The Indigenous Placemaking Centre board of directors would then assume full lease responsibility from 2026 onward.

After a lengthy discussion by council last week, they moved to direct administration on a business case for financial, day-to-day programming, and involvement of Indigenous community members. The motion was carried 4-2 by Couns. Alex Reed, Patrick Wilson, Morgan Nagel and Mayor Jeff Genung. Couns. Marni Fedeyko and Susan Flowers voted against the motion.

After the meeting, director of community services for the Rotary Club of Cochrane, Melissa Engdahl, spoke to The Eagle about her thoughts on council's discussion. Although she finds it promising that the proposal didn’t fall though due to a split decision, she is still unhappy with council’s hesitancy to support the initiative.

“It’s very disappointing to hear comments that perhaps are uneducated in the full history of Indigenous people in the community,” Engdahl said. “And I know it might be hard for Indigenous people to hear those comments.

“When the news of the 250 Kamloops graves were found, my phone was ringing off the hook,” she added. “From locals and businesses saying – ‘how do we help? How do we get involved?’ They wanted somewhere to turn, somewhere to find support, and they didn’t know where.”

Engdahl said a 35-page document submitted to the Town contained all the necessary information council would need to make a thorough decision. Additionally, the document listed general information of programming they plan to offer and general areas they plan to tackle that are identified as key opportunities and needs in the community.

“I have been involved with the town for 13 years and I am unaware of proposals with that level of detail in the past,” Engdahl said. “There is financial [information], including modelling of costs of goods and services, COGS {Cost of goods sold] that potentially showed what programming could potentially run, what we know we can run, and started to run.”

Another point of contention Engdahl had from the meeting was with a statement by Coun. Reed arguing that the information had been submitted last-minute. She denies that claim.

“They would have had it Wednesday a week earlier when the agenda goes out, so it could have gone out maybe earlier, but there is a council process,” she said. “But that’s five days, and council members…I know it’s tough as part-time council members [because] there are limitations, but there was plenty of time to read the report.

“Particularly then to turn around during the session and say – ‘I need more information,’ when it was all there...that was hard to hear as volunteers that spent many hours putting this together.”

Wendy Patterson, a Métis woman and fourth-generation Cochranite who was involved with the proposal, said she had a plethora of thoughts to share about the decision.

“I’d love to come up with a better word besides ‘wilfully ignorant,’ but that’s what it felt like,” she said. “And it felt like they were being discriminatory towards Indigenous people, and completely disrespectful to the volunteers who were involved getting this off the ground.”

As a collaborative effort between the Elders of Mînî Thnî (Morley) and Cochrane, Patterson feels council’s tabling decision was misinformed and poorly reflects the efforts contributed by each group.

“It just felt like these three specific councillors didn’t take the time to understand the proposal and they’ve had months,” Patterson said. “Let alone understand the role Cochrane has for the people of Mînî Thnî.”

As Cochrane’s population continues to grow, Patterson believes the Indigenous Centre would serve as a way to connect with the people of Morley, the land, and the role the Town has in the development of the surrounding area.

“We seem to be getting away from that soul of Cochrane,” she said. “And this really felt like it was going to anchor us back to our roots.”

She felt the three councillors who voted for a business case by administration had “completely and utterly neglected their duties.”

“They don’t even educate themselves on what’s being brought to the table, they just go out spewing talking points,” Patterson said.

Patterson argued Coun. Reed’s comments regarding fiscal responsibility were “a complete joke.”

“… We’re asking for $30,000. We’re talking less than $1 per person in town,” she said. “And you think of other things money has gone into from Spray Lakes to the highway construction, and the cost overrides that go along that that – I would like to understand what he thinks fiscal responsibility is.”

Although Coun. Tara McFadden was not present for the meeting on Oct. 24, Patterson anticipates her attendance at the next meeting will allow the proposal to pass when it returns to council.

“The Centre is going ahead one way or another,” Patterson said. “There’s too many people involved [and] there’s too much passion."

Due diligence

In an interview with The Eagle after the meeting, Coun. Nagel, who voted to move administration to move on the business case, said the topic of Truth and Reconciliation is important, but he wants to make sure Town resources are being used wisely.

“The lack of information presented to council leaves me wondering if maybe it is a space with a ‘build it and they will come’ strategy,” he said. “Which is not a strategy I would support because our resources are stretched quite thin across the Town of Cochrane.”

Nagel outlined he would prefer to support projects with clear demands and strategies on how resources will be utilized.

“In this instance, I want to be sure that this going to be used [for] something,” Nagel said. “I don’t want to build a space that is going to be empty 350 days a year and maybe used 15 days a year.

“That’s why when we sent it back to administration, … one of the things I specifically requested was a plan, an agenda, and a calendar to be going on in the space year-round.”

The councillor acknowledged there is a lot of sensitivity and emotions regarding the topic.

“I felt in the room, ‘If you didn’t support that particular proposal then you don’t support Truth and Reconciliation,’” Nagel said. “And I want to encourage an environment in our town office and the Ranchehouse, where people can ask questions about how money is being spent, resources are being used, without it being a signal towards a broader and negative connotation.”

Although council will reconvene for the proposal soon, he wants to stress to residents that council did not turn down the proposal, and is only seeking more information.

“I think people should refrain from jumping to conclusions like we are looking for excuses to say no,” Nagel said. “I’m looking for excuses to say yes.”

Also reached after the meeting, Coun. Reed said he appreciates that people are very passionate about the proposal.

“What I was trying to suggest was, yes, there was a lot of information there, but there wasn’t enough detailed information, for someone like me who has a business background and interest,” he said.

He added that additional information was provided by administration in the form of the 35-page document submitted to council, but he did not have access to it or the opportunity to read it beforehand.

“I have a full-time job and so I got the information late that afternoon, saw it as an email, but didn’t have the chance to read [the whole document] before the meeting,” he said.

“So, to be clear, … I wasn’t disagreeing with the [proposal], I was just asking for additional information.

“I was trying to be respectful and I was in a space where I wanted to learn more, and so I haven’t made a decision whether where or how we should proceed with this.

“I’m an elected official who has a responsibility and a duty to do my due diligence, and so I’m not going to have a knee-jerk reaction to a decision that is important to our community without having the documentation I needed.”

Reed mentioned he asked questions that went unanswered in the meeting, that in the spirit of curiosity, simply intended to garner more information.

Furthermore, he disagrees with comments made regarding his thoughts and decision labelled as being willfully ignorant and uninformed.

“They know nothing of my history in terms of my dealings with Indigenous people,” Reed said, outlining that he has been involved with several projects and communities involving Indigenous communities in Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia.

“To suggest that I’m ignorant on the subject is, first of all, disrespectful, the fact they didn’t take the time or appreciate I have experience in that area,” Reed said. “And it shows their own level of ignorance in terms of the process of understanding people’s different perspectives.”

Although no concrete decision has been made, Reed wants to assure those who are upset with the decision to let the process in council take its due course.

“If they want responsible and credible leaders in their community to do their jobs and due diligence, then respect the process,” he said. “I hope the decision we finally make will be one that they are comfortable with moving forward.

“But I don’t want pre-judge that until we have the opportunity of researching it, getting back to the questions we have raised, and formulating an appropriate decision."

The Cochrane Indigenous Placemaking Initiative is aimed to return to council on Nov. 14.

Daniel Gonzalez

About the Author: Daniel Gonzalez

Daniel Gonzalez joined the Cochrane Eagle in 2022. He is a graduate of the Mount Royal University Journalism program. He has worked for the Kids Cancer Care Foundation of Alberta and as a reporter in rural Alberta for the ECA Review.
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