Skip to main content

The McDougall Memorial United Church near Morley, Alta. – pictured before it was destroyed in a fire in 2017 – had long been a fond landmark for many people in the area. But for the Stoney-Nakoda, its presence has been incongruous with the place they and their ancestors knew.FrankvandenBergh/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Kylee Pedersen is a writer and editor based in London.

In the forest behind the farmhouse I grew up in, nestled in the Alberta foothills, lies an old wagon trail. My dad and I used to turn onto it when we rode our horses through the valley that runs parallel to our property line, staying on it for a few hundred metres or so before going off the path, picking a circuitous route of least resistance around fallen poplar tree trunks.

The horses always perked up when we got to the trail – they have a way of knowing about a path that’s been taken before. Something about crossing its threshold always made me alert, too. Maybe, like the horses, it was the feeling that I wasn’t the first one to travel here, that this artery through the forest was a guided way I had someone else to thank for.

My dad imparted to me the importance of orientation from an early age, and how trails were a vital element of understanding the landscape around you. They were markings that made the unknowable knowable, signposts that tethered you to a landscape, to lead you home or otherwise. Trails were people’s first form of placemaking. They told the history of the valley that we lived in.

Which was that for centuries, Plains Indigenous people mapped out the lands of what is now Treaty 7 through footpaths, mirroring the seasonal movements of buffalo herds. When colonists first arrived, they learned about the Alberta foothills and Rocky Mountains through excursions on First Nations trails, guided by chiefs, before taking the pathways for themselves. Highways and gravel roads were built along ancient Indigenous-made routes, while great tracts of land, the lungs of a once great ecosystem of migration, were divided up and sold as private property.

More than a century later, my parents bought one of those parcels, cleared trees for a driveway and moved into a mobile home. Seven years later, they built a house. They put in a garden on the west side of the house, rows of potatoes and carrots growing half a kilometre away from an old wagon trail in the forest, once used by pioneers making their way north to the Dogpound Rodeo Grounds, a route first created and travelled on by the Stoney-Nakoda First Nations.

A new place had been made, but on top of what?

Almost 25 kilometres from my family’s ranch, on the side of a single lane highway heading west into the Rocky Mountains, is a white one-room church. Built in 1875, the McDougall Memorial United Church, founded by Rev. John McDougall, served as Southern Alberta’s first permanent Protestant mission, out of which all Methodist evangelizing efforts on the Stoney-Nakoda community were based. For a brief moment the church was the centre of a settlement in the region called Morleyville, before the Canadian Pacific Railway was built and drew pioneers farther southeast, to the banks of the Bow River, founding what is now Cochrane, the town where I went to high school.

Different oral accounts attest that McDougall played a significant role in persuading Stoney-Nakoda chiefs to sign Treaty 7 in 1877, a document that in part demarcated land into what belonged to the Indigenous people and what belonged to the settlers. It is now general knowledge that when Indigenous leaders across North America signed land treaties, they did so behind a veil of miscommunication – most chiefs did not know that they were effectively signing their land away. When fences were put up around the boundaries of the newly entrenched Stoney-Nakoda Nation, the church was included within its land.

Growing up, I would often drive by the church with my family when we were taking the back roads to the mountains. A few miles down the road from the church is the town of Morley, named after another prominent Methodist, where a residential school for the newly formed Stoney-Nakoda Nations was in operation from 1926-1969. Children who attended the school, which was administered by the church, at times forcibly, were forbidden to speak their native language, wear traditional clothes or practise their ancestral customs. Many cases of abuse at the school have been documented since.

The church has always been a fond landmark for most of the white people I knew in and around Cochrane growing up. One of my closest friend’s parents were married there. I went to school with the great-great-great-grandson of Andrew Sibbald, the first white teacher in the region, who helped McDougall lay the building’s foundation.

In a town that is relatively young, (the population has grown from just under 6,000 to more than 29,000 since I was born) landmarks that do not bear the newness of suburbia age beyond their years. The church has long been a firm anchor of place for people living in Cochrane – maybe its history makes us feel as though we lay claim to this land, that it is somehow our rightful inheritance. But for the Stoney-Nakoda, its presence has been incongruous with the place they and their ancestors knew.

On May 22, 2017, in the early morning hours, the church caught fire and nearly burned to the ground. The RCMP initially investigated the case as arson, but the circumstances of the fire still remain a mystery.

In the aftermath of the burning, some members from the Stoney-Nakoda Nations brought petitions to the Alberta government to stop the rebuild and review the church’s heritage designation, in an effort to reclaim the land it stands on as their own. Their requests were founded in a 2003 agreement between the Nations and the McDougall Stoney Mission Society – the church’s governing body – that gave the Nations the right to buy the land back for $10 if the building was no longer standing. They have so far been denied.

Over the years, members of the Stoney-Nakoda Nation have not only seen their ancestral homeland occupied, but have been forced to participate in the very structures of placemaking that have eroded theirs. Material structures are an added reminder of the settler system that has literally been built upon what was once theirs.

Meanwhile, to non-Indigenous people, the church is the earliest form of placemaking in these hills that they can relate to. It’s on their side of history, where their shared experience of this land begins. Since it burned down, thousands of dollars have been funnelled toward the rebuild of the church (including a grant of $134,086 from the Calgary Foundation) to recreate the cornerstone of settler culture. At a press conference soon after the incident, Brenda McQueen, the great-great-granddaughter of John McDougall, promised that the church would be resurrected from the ashes: “Everything will be like it was before.”

Ms. McQueen’s sentiment is one that many of us share – we long to keep places as we know them to be, to memorialize and freeze moments in time. History shows us however, that, for better or worse, places will change. The question is whose placemaking will be given priority?

The neighbours to the north of our farmhouse have a game farm. When I was a kid, they put up 10-foot-high fences to keep their buffalo and elk in, the wild game out. They cut right through the wagon trail. The movement and migration of herds through the valley was ironically halted by a sanctuary meant to protect them. My dad resented the game farm and everything it stood for. He longed to see the land stay the way it was – unobstructed, at least to an extent.

Some part of me inherited that same desire. My dad’s lament about the encroachment of city people toward our farm, the new houses in the area that would go up periodically, put me into a state of agony as it did him. “Bastards,” he would mutter as we drove home in his pickup truck, spotting the newest house frame going up 100 metres from the highway.

As I’ve grown older I’ve realized that as much as my dad and I wanted the valley where we lived to stay the same, our very existence there was a mark of how much had already been lost to the people who were here first. Our placemaking is inevitably tempered by those who came before.

We create places that we feel reflect us – our interests, our values, our material ways of being. But what happens when a place does not reflect everyone? What does it mean when one form of placemaking is prioritized over another? Whose place is commemorated, whose is buried?

Maybe the reason why I’ve held the land I grew up on so tightly is because I’ve always known deep down, since first seeing the wagon trail in the valley as a child, that it wasn’t really mine to begin with. Maybe our attachment to the places we make is more than just a part of how we understand ourselves. Maybe it’s a fear that we too will be forgotten, that the places we hold dear will be erased.

I love the land I was raised on, and I hope to one day move back. But I’m also aware that my ability to return to a place made by my kin, a place that is entwined with my identity, is a privilege that much of Canada’s First Nations have been robbed of.

“Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set.” This is the old-testament Bible proverb that hangs on a board above a path that once led to the front door of McDougall Memorial United Church. It’s written in English and Stoney – also known as the Iyahe Nakoda language.

Last fall, the province of Alberta granted the McDougall Stoney Mission Society approval to begin reconstruction of the building. It’s slated to be finished by this spring.

The McDougall Memorial United Church near Morley, Alta.FrankvandenBergh/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.