WABASCA – The community of Wabasca, which is 175 kilometres north of Athabasca, recently took another important step in the decolonization process Aug. 21 when the local RCMP detachment changed its name to the traditional Cree name for the area.
Moving forwards, the detachment formerly known as the Desmarais RCMP will officially be the Wabasca RCMP detachment, after a grand opening ceremony and renaming took place at the station Aug. 21.
Wabasca, an anglicized version of the Cree word wâpaskâw, can be translated as “white grass,” which is the traditional name for the Wabasca River.
For M.D. of Opportunity reeve Marcel Auger, the ceremony is the culmination of a process that he said has been ongoing since at least the late 1990s, when he started working at the M.D.
“All these different areas in the communities had Cree names, which showed what was in the area. During the times of the residential schools, there was a priest here named Father Desmarais, who took it upon himself to rename the community,” said Auger.
The decision to rename the detachment was undertaken in consultation with leaders from Bigstone Cree Nation, as well as local elders and Opportunity’s municipal council.
More than a name
“With all the abuses that had gone on in the residential schools, it had a negative connotation with that last name representing the community,” said Auger. “There’s been talks with Elders going on back to at least ’98. It’s really one community and having one side known as Desmarais and one side known as Wabasca didn’t make a lot of sense either.”
The residential school in question was St. Martin’s, a Roman Catholic school that opened in 1902 and operated until 1973 on the northern shore of Lake Wabasca.
According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, at least 18 students died while at the school, while St. Paul’s, an Anglican school on the southern shore, saw an additional eight students pass away during its operation.
“We had two (residential schools) within our Nation, and with Father Desmarais having made a not-so-positive impact with our Nation members, the renaming is a way for us to move forward,” said Bigstone Cree Nation’s Chief Andy Alook in an Aug. 25 interview.
“It’s also a way for us to recognize that the RCMP have a role in protecting the treaties, and protecting and supporting the communities in any healing that they might want to be going through.”
For the RCMP, the change is about engagement with the local community, and sharing the name of the community that they’re working in. The new detachment, which was constructed two years ago, is located at 2140 Airport Road, as opposed to the old building which was further from the community.
“We just want to represent the area that we’re working,” said Sgt. Amie Blize, the acting detachment commander. “We want to be more representative of the community, and I believe that the community as a whole wants to start referring to itself as Wabasca instead of Wabasca-Desmarais.
“The community seems to be really happy about the change,” concluded the sergeant.
The RCMP detachment isn’t the only important name that the community has lobbied to change; the M.D. had also gone through talks with Canada Post to have the location name changed officially to Wabasca.
“It was a big thing when the post office recognized that it was just Wabasca, and I think the RCMP was really the final portion of ridding the name Desmarais from our area,” said Auger. “Right now the M.D. is looking at going through a rebranding project, which includes putting up signs for areas with the old Cree names, just to get that sense of tradition and history back for our residents and for our youth.”
Wabasca is one of three communities that make up Bigstone Cree Nation, with the other two being Calling Lake and Chipewyan Lake. Despite the progress that has been made, Chief Alook said that the renaming was just a small step, and that focus needs to remain on healing.
“We understand and we know that our Nation members are at a different point in their journey of healing,” said Chief Alook. We had an elders’ gathering this past week in relation to residential schools, and we were fortunate enough to have five chiefs in attendance. Renaming the detachment is one small part of that movement. What we want our people to look forward to is positive change, and a positive future for not only our elders but for anyone impacted by inter-generational trauma.”