Hobbema doesn’t have to be a ghetto

Hobbema problems will continue unless we are all more proactive.

Hobbema problems will continue unless we are all more proactive.

Hobbema is the townsite for four First Nations bands — Samson Cree Nation, Louis Bull, Erminskin and Montana First Nation. The band members have common aboriginal heritage, but they have distinct identities to themselves and to federal government. Likewise, though most commentators suggest that ‘everyone’ associated with Hobbema has oil royalty wealth, that’s not true. There are thousands of poor people living on the reserve. There’s also an upwards of 80 per cent unemployment rate in a population of some 11,000 to 15,000.

Why don’t they get a job?

Good question. How?

I worked as the Ponoka employment counsellor for five years until recently. Hobbema was not my territory but 30 per cent of my clients were aboriginal. I will describe what I observed and some possible solutions. I am not speaking for anyone but me.

Most of my First Nations clients wanted a job. Many of them had little idea of how to get or keep one. People who lived on reserve who came to me consistently described the difficulties of trying to get a job.

The No. 1 problem was transportation. Ponoka and Wetaskiwin are each only 10 minutes drive south or north of Hobbema, but there is no bus service at commuter times.

So it would help to have an affordable shuttle bus at commuter hours between Wetaskiwin, Hobbema and Ponoka. It needs to be very affordable. The departure point probably needs to be the RCMP station until such time as gang activity is reduced. This bus would also serve retiring boomers, low-income WASPS and AISH/PDD recipients who don’t drive.

In the boom, several thousand people were unemployed in Hobbema. Yet Alberta was importing thousands of foreign workers — some just to handle customer service at fast food outlets. That seemed a wasted opportunity to me. Entry level work is a valuable way to build skills, knowledge and long term career goals.

Many First Nations people grew up in families where no one worked. Consequently, their ideas and knowledge of what you’re expected to do in the workplace are very limited. Employers don’t have time to teach that.

There’s a program in the United States called Tackling the Tough Skills, which was designed after consulting with employers. The workbook costs only $65 and the exercises can be copied. It teaches fundamental work and inter-personal communications skills with simple, fun and enlightening exercises. (http://extension.missouri.edu/tough-life-skills/)

These things would provide opportunities for greater, more successful integration.

Aboriginal people are invisible in public life in Canada. I rarely see native people as newspaper reporters, anchor people or celebs. CBC has many news folk with unpronounceable names from offshore multi-ethnic heritage — but only Sid Bobb appears as a real ‘Indian’… on Kids CBC! When will they hire him to replace the blond, thin and female Heather Hiscox on the morning news? Global TV wins points for aboriginal Daintre Christiansen, although she doesn’t appear in beaded buckskin. (Doesn’t have to either).

People wonder why the First Nations don’t ‘do something’ with Hobbema, all that oil money (mostly from Samson’s oil rights). Samson has created some companies; but I understand that being an entrepreneur on the reserve is very difficult. Mostly because of Ottawa. If you want to open a business in Hobbema, you apparently have to get permission from Ottawa. Funny, because if you want to open one in Ponoka or Red Deer or Wetaskiwin, you don’t. Imagine the red tape. Then the nepotism.

So in my view, the gangs on reserve are actually a fine example of entrepreneurial spirit. In the face of nothing else to do, limited education and limited access to ‘how things work’ off reserve, they have started ‘a business’ — deadly as it is.

Until or unless we make it easier and more possible for people from the Four Bands to engage in other business and work activities we consider to be the norm, gang activity will continue. Like real work, the gang gives you something to do, a place in society, money, and can get you high so you forget that you are otherwise invisible to the people your ancestors agreed to share this great land with.

By the way, Indian reserves were never part of the original treaties. “Indian wars” happened in the U.S., not here in the West.

The Indian Act unilaterally created the reserves after the First Nations signed the treaties in good faith. We created this ghetto. Now we are surprised at the dysfunction?

Michelle Stirling-Anosh is a Ponoka-based freelance columnist.

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