The Elizabeth Settlement is one of 8 Métis settlements in Alberta, and part of a larger community of Métis in Canada. The Métis are one of 3 groups of Aboriginal people of Canada which also includes First Nations and Inuit.
First, let’s look at the location. This settlement is 32km south of Cold Lake Alberta, about 4 hours east of Edmonton, near the Saskatchewan border. It’s flat prairie land with big open skies and lots of mother nature.
The settlement itself is home to about 1,000 people on 25,641 hectares. The community has a elementary school, new nursery school, a community hall that also has a health centre attached and there are administrative offices. These are the buildings we saw and there may be more. They have a lot of facilities but what they have a shortage of is housing. Only 130 homes for the 1,000 people and it’s a growing population.
We got just a taste of the Métis culture and history while we were there. Métis are people of mixed heritage, First Nations and European. On the Elizabeth settlement strong French roots are felt as evidenced by surnames: Desjarlias, Lepine-Tremblay and Lagimodiere. In fact, the word “Métis” is a French word translated as “half breed.” But it’s clear that the people are of various ancestries.
What they have in common is a fairly recent sense of belonging. Talk to some of the older members and they’ll describe their family struggles being squatters, neither First Nations nor “white,” being called “road allowance people.” It was only in 1982 that the existing Aboriginal and Treaty rights of the Aboriginal peoples in Canada were recognized and affirmed and there was an explicit recognition of the Métis as one of the three distinct Aboriginal peoples.
While the land is beautiful and the community is strong and family oriented, some of the challenges are openly talked about. Education is an issue. The elementary school is well equipped and the kids are engaged but high school is an issue and the drop out rate is high.
Equal to education is the issue of housing and one solution may be the Habitat model of home ownership. Economic development and sustainability is an issue as the federal funding agreement ended a few years ago and the Métis must become self supporting. The oil and gas industry is a huge employer but not only a tempting alternative to school, a single source of employment. What will happen if the boom ends? The green shoots of entrepreneurship have started but need to be fostered. Some are looking to better monetize the land and its raw materials. And then there are the typical issues many communities face of nutrition, addictions and teen pregnancies.
During our week, we built not only houses but bridges to this community. Vice Chair of Council, Chris Desjarlias, in his closing remarks made it clear that this was not only a potential housing model for his community but for all Aboriginal groups.
So as our volunteer team returns home, may the teams within the community and outside continue to work together to build these houses and a healthy future for families.
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