By Shari Narine
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Alleged racist comments by a councillor for the Rural Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) during a budget meeting last week overshadowed important work on murdered, missing and exploited Indigenous women and girls. The council was asked to approve a budget of $150,000 to support prevention and awareness initiatives.
The comments came from new councillor M. Shafiq Dogar, who moved to Fort McMurray, the urban centre of RMWB, in 2006. The comments also overshadowed statements made by two other councillors, which underscored their own lack of understanding of the situation facing Indigenous women and girls.
“I’m not surprised because we’re not valued the same as non-Indigenous people,” said Lisa Marie Bourque (Ahaisewiskwew), president of the Nistawoyou Association Friendship Centre in Fort McMurray. She is also leader for the New Dawn Metis Women’s Society Region 1.
“Our quality of life, `Well, that’s just another Indian. That’s just whatever.’ We’re not at the same status as the new Canadians.
We’re still at the bottom of the barrel. It’s not surprising because I don’t feel we’re valued as Canadian citizens.”
Dogar delivered his “broken sentences,” as he himself described them, during the Feb. 3 RMWB meeting. His rambling and thick accent made his comments difficult to understand. Yet they piqued the ire of Indigenous councils and other organizations in the northeast region of Alberta.
“But geography and location, these people are in the rural area and whenever there’s any drunk people in the town, I am a taxi driver and I can feel it after a few yards, a few hundred yards, you will find someplace where you will get some respite or something and for some relief,” said Dogar. “As a taxi driver, I get a hold of them. But in your rural areas it is a long distance. Some people drunk, maybe it’s a criminal case also. Fighting, beating somebody.
He is unconscious. People can’t leave them immediately.”
Dogar was speaking on a motion put forward by Councillor Kendrick Cardinal to address the issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, as well as to work with Indigenous communities and families on an awareness campaign related to violence prevention and combatting lateral violence.
The statements, interpreted as racist, have led to the call of Dogar’s resignation by the Fort McKay First Nation, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, the Athabasca Tribal Council, and the Fort McKay Metis Nation.
The Conklin community, including the Conklin Metis Local 193, have called for the audiotape of the meeting to be released so the “councillor’s words can be scrutinized in context and with clarity.”
Dogar included a Youtube link to the entire discussion on the motion in a Facebook post where he also stressed that his statements were neither hate speech nor discrimination.
“I challenged the Councillor that people dying have more to do with the geographic realities of rural indigenous communities vs urban areas. I said that due to large distances to medical/essential services in rural areas vs urban areas, people are more likely to die,” wrote Dogar.
“In my mind, I didn’t equate Indigenous community with alchololism (sic) or any bad actions. It was merely an example that popped in my mind and now I realize that I was wrong in using that example due to the unfortunate stereotype. For that I unequivalically (sic) apologize,” he wrote.
“I’m sorry if that’s the first thing that comes to your mind.
That’s a fake stereotype and a stigma and it’s racism. And it’s taught,” said Bourque.
Mayor Sandy Bowman released a letter calling Dogar’s comments “hurtful and divisive” and said he would “formally” commit himself and his council to further Indigenous cultural awareness and sensitivity training.
However, Bowman did not say he would commit his council to learning more about the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) despite comments by Councillor Allan Grandison, who questioned the need to focus funding on MMIWG.
“Do we just simply identify one group? Is that responsible to all of us? Because it’s not just Indigenous and two-spirited people… There’s other women and two-spirited people that aren’t Indigenous as well. Do we just forget that group?” said Grandison.
Statistics show, as do the 231 Calls for Justice from the national inquiry into MMIWG and gender diverse people, “that Indigenous identity itself remained a risk factor for violent victimization of women,” according to a recent fact sheet put out by the Native Women’s Association of Canada.
“I understand there’s other women that go missing, but ? had it been a non-Indigenous person, you would have posters all over the place, stuff on the milk cartons,” said Bourque. “It would be everywhere. You would have documentaries written about it. But when it comes to Indigenous women, that’s our truth. We’re just trying to have our truth out there to be heard, to be understood and acknowledged that this is very real and we need to address these issues.”
Dr. Mark Young, an instructor of political science and philosophy at Keyano College in Fort McMurray, says people, particularly politicians, have a difficult time understanding that justice doesn’t mean treating people the same.
While Grandison says money should be spent equally among all groups to combat violence against women, Young says Grandison needs to understand that “disproportionate funding ? for Indigenous women and girls is just because we know, there’s no denying the facts, disproportionately Indigenous women and girls are suffering with being killed, going missing, suffering from violence.
Disproportionately compared to other groups in the community.”
Grandison also said that although he had read the 94 Calls to Action from the final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the legacy of Indian residential schools, he would “plead ignorance” as to how that report supported action that should be taken by the municipal government.
The TRC final report identifies actions to be taken by different institutions, including those by municipalities. One of those calls is to “provide education to public servants on the history of
**>Aboriginal<** peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and **>Aboriginal<** rights, Indigenous law, and **>Aboriginal<**_Crown relations. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.”
Councillor Keith McGrath suggested a virtual tour of the “Winnipeg museum” would help educate municipal officials. Winnipeg is home to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
“They want to spend money to go do a virtual tour or whatever the hell it is when the issues are here?” said Bourque. “In their own community, it’s not even acknowledged. Really, it’s not. As an Indigenous person you’re not even considered of equal value, period.
We always have to fight for basic human rights, even to be heard.
It’s very sad and wrong.”
“It would be shocking, of course, that any Canadian, especially ones involved in politics and involved in politics where there’s a large Indigenous community, would be unaware of the issues faced by Indigenous women and girls,” said Young.
The 2016 census shows the Indigenous population in the area at nine per cent. In the urban service area of Fort McMurray, the Indigenous population is 5,195. Data from the most recent census, which was undertaken in 2021, has yet to be released.
McGrath was first elected in 2013 to the RMWB council and is the longest serving councillor for his ward. Grandison, although serving his first term, worked almost 10 years for the RMWB.
Young says there is a silver lining in that councillors have suggested getting educated on the history and impact of colonization on Indigenous people.
“It does speak to an ignorance, but a willingness to learn is a positive thing. That’s a good thing to focus on,” said Young.
As to why Dogar’s comments received the attention they did over the comments made by Grandison and McGrath, Young says there are a number of possible reasons.
“It could be because of shock because of what Dogar said, or allegedly said, that draws the attention because it was so shocking.
And I suppose, maybe, transgression of the other councillors would be less shocking, would be more based not on racism but ignorance, while the other statements seem to be explicit racism instead of ignorance,” said Young.
There are other factors, he adds, that may account for the disparity in the attention received amongst the three councillors.
Dogar is a new councillor and doesn’t have the presence in the wider community that McGrath does.
“Another part could be the ethnic or racial ideas,” said Young.
Both McGrath and Grandison are white while Dogar is of South Asian descent.
“We know that there are so many examples that white folks do get treated differently than people of colour in various institutions_police, media and things like that. Things are changing but they’re still not equal in that sense,” said Young.
`There are all these variables that can come into play to complicate things and they might all be involved. It might not just be one thing. It could be a variety of things.”
As for the motion, it was amended and passed unanimously to create a committee led by Cardinal to determine a strategy to meet the goals he had outlined. Council was open to a larger investment than the original $150,000 ask.
“I feel like Councillor Cardinal did his best to request those funds for prevention and that’s not a lot of money to be asking for for prevention,” said Bourque.
Cardinal, who is Metis, told Windspeaker.com, he would not be addressing Dogar’s comments. He said he was in favour of Indigenous awareness training.
Cardinal is councillor for Ward 2, which includes Fort McKay and the area north.
Shari Narine is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Windspeaker.Com . The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.