Late last August, Ken Hudson, president of the Fort Smith Métis Council, penned a letter to the Town of Fort Smith requesting McDougal Road be renamed “in the spirit of reconciliation.”
The letter claims many injustices against the area’s Métis people resulted from the deliberate actions of John A McDougal – a district agent in Fort Smith and superintendent of Wood Buffalo National Park roughly a century ago.
Most notably, Hudson alleges McDougal’s role in the formation of the park was directly related to the expulsion of nearly 2,000 Métis hunters and trappers from the park following its creation in 1922.
Nearly 11 months after it was written, the letter appeared in the Town’s July 10 community services meeting package – much to the surprise of Hudson, who had been wondering about its status.
He told Cabin Radio while he has not received any official correspondence, connections at Town Hall told him their response was delayed as they had to fill seats on the Town’s advisory board on culture, which is responsible for handling the request.
Truth and reconciliation
Hudson repeated assertions long maintained by the Métis Council, writing, “Because of the actions of McDougal, Métis have irretrievably lost their lifestyle, livelihood, and connection to the land in the park.
“Subsequent generations lost their connection to the land where their grandparents hunted and trapped, and only now are working to slowly regain that which was lost.”
Despite repeated requests, it wasn’t until 2003 that the Métis were allowed to harvest in the park again, even though privileges were extended to Indigenous peoples and settlers in the decades prior.
Hudson encouraged the town to “take a concrete step towards reconciliation,” citing the increased scrutiny of well-known Canadians’ legacies that has led to the renaming of Langevin Block at Parliament, alongside calls to rename schools that currently honour Prime Minister John A MacDonald.
“We have historic people who did good on behalf of Aboriginal people throughout the years that we’d just as soon remember than some white guy who happened to be passing through the country,” Hudson said when reached by phone.
“You’ve got to have a reason [for a name].”
While Hudson acknowledges some residents and businesses will see renaming one of the town’s main streets as an inconvenience, he encourages those opposing to the potential change to compare “the ‘inconvenience’ those Métis families suffered when forcibly removed from their cabins and harvesting areas.”
A backgrounder published by the Northwest Territory Métis Nation on the Métis’ history with the park states McDougal, at the request of Bishop Breynat in 1923, relayed to the Advisory Board on Wildlife Protection that the Métis should be allowed to continue to hunt and trap in the park.
Breynat’s recommendation was rejected; it is unclear the influence McDougal had on this outcome.
The Métis tried again in 1932, even getting the Chief to write to Ottawa supporting their petition. But a few weeks later McDougal wrote a follow-up letter to the city, which stated: “At my request Chief Abraham called … and he repudiated the statement he signed.”
In his letter, McDougal – who was district agent at the time – argued if only certain Métis were allowed back into the park, they would soon be overwhelmed with requests from others, putting the First Nations’ trapping grounds at risk.
“The current policy outlines the steps to consider when naming a street for a recommended individual, not for removing an individual’s name from a street,” wrote Cynthia White, the Town’s director of community services, in a briefing note on the Métis Council’s request.
At the July 10 meeting, town councillors discussed informing the Métis Council their request is under review, assessing the economic impacts of a name change, and consulting the community.
White noted the Town’s policy requires they present the petition to the public for feedback, and look at the character and record of the person the street may be named for.
It is unclear how the petition will proceed given the Métis Council did not suggest an alternative name, but instead stated, “it should be a commemoration that all residents of Fort Smith can proudly celebrate now and in the future.”
The Town of Fort Smith could not be reached for comment.