Hope trumps impoverishment of soul for Morley mother

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, April 9, 2008

The media are once more wallowing in the despair of widespread substance abuse and violence among First Nations young people in southern Alberta. In the Cochrane area, that has brought the Stoney Nakoda First Nation at Morley and its satellite community, Eden Valley, west of Longview, into the headlines.

Public reaction has been predictable: Why don’t “those Indians” take responsibility for their lives? Isn’t this the consequence of too much welfare and idleness? Why is it always up to Canadian taxpayers to pick up the tab?

But those who say such things know neither the background nor the signs of hope on the “Rez.”

One of our Morley coffee companions, Myrna Kootenay, is a living contradiction to this kind of stereotypical thinking.

Myrna is employed by her Bearspaw First Nation branch of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation as a financial counsellor/manager. She is also a very active volunteer with the Alberta Adolescent Recovery Centre (AARC), where she serves on the Aboriginal Support Resource & Community Intervention Steering Committee.

“Our community has been ravaged by the disease of dependency,” she told me recently. “Back in the good ol’ days of our parents and grandparents, no one was on welfare.”

Back in “the good ol’ days”? In fact, based on my own experience, we don’t have to look much further back than the late 1960s. In the years prior to that, many families at Morley supported themselves through small cow-calf operations. Like ranchers elsewhere, they did their buying and selling at auction marts, raised and harvested hay, and cooperated with each other in mending fences and branding. There was a neighbourliness and respect for each other that was refreshing.

Then came that fateful community-wide meeting called by the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA). If I had not been there myself to hear what the DIA official said, I would never have believed it.

The official told the audience that the DIA had done a study showing cow-calf operators at Morley were “living below the poverty line.” Therefore, the department was offering them a program that promised to greatly improve their quality of life. They should get rid of their cow-calf operations and accept welfare!

And for a time many believed the lie that dependency is somehow better than the freedom and satisfaction that come from struggle and achievement. Personal accountability that is part and parcel of the ranching life was one of the first victims.

Myrna has very strong feelings about this kind of impoverishment of soul.

“The most recent rash of alcohol and drug-related deaths is a direct result of a generation who are impoverished at a soul level and live in a state of dependency and apathy and lack individual accountability,” she said.

And far from Canadian tax payers picking up the tab, she said, one-third of her First Nation’s budget is used to provide opportunities for young people to rise above the cycle of dependency through education, job-training and business development.

For Myrna, helping the young people of her community get reconnected with lives worth living is more than community programs, however. It’s about parenting with a heart of love and humility.

In my column “AARC graduate praised as ‘bringer of the dawn’” I recounted the story of Myrna’s life-changing journey of healing with her then-18-year-old daughter, Chantelle.

Chantelle had got caught up in the drug scene in Grade 9. The honour student and classical violinist became a lost soul. She even stole money from her baby brother to buy her next high.

A bad mushroom trip stopped her in her tracks. With her mother’s encouragement, Chantelle enrolled in AARC. The no-nonsense honesty-based program works with the whole family, and in Chantelle’s case, this meant her mother and siblings would also be enrolled in the treatment process for an entire year.

At Chantelle’s graduation at the completion of the program, Myrna took the microphone and, looking directly at Chantelle, said:

“Through your pain and hardship in addiction, I have recovered, too. You have brought me so much healing and willingness to change. You are the bringer of the dawn.”

Now, six years later, Chantelle is attending the American Indian Art Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “She’s a contestant in this year’s Miss Indian World competition, too,” Myrna said proudly. “She’ll be celebrating seven years sobriety in May.”

Yes, Myrna knows what she’s talking about when it comes to breaking free from a culture of dependency and impoverishment of soul. For Myrna, the operative word is “Hope.”

© 2008 Warren Harbeck

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