WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Consultants who ran public engagement sessions on municipal naming in St. Albert, Alta., last year say the project drew an unprecedented level of discriminatory, racist and threatening comments from a small but vocal minority of residents.
The City of St. Albert decided to re-examine its naming process in 2021, after receiving requests to remove the Grandin name from streets and municipal assets.
Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin was a proponent and architect of the residential school system. Since the discovery of suspected unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in 2021, numerous school boards, including Catholic boards in St. Albert and Edmonton, have voted to remove his name from schools.
Consultants hired by the city to conduct public engagement on municipal naming wrote a report on public feedback. At the urging of focus group members, they also produced a second report that contained discriminatory comments received during the engagement. The consultants gave the racism report to the city's executive leadership in December.
Teneya Gwin of Eleven Eleven Consulting focused on Indigenous engagement during the project and Blaise Fontaine of Proactive Planning focused on public engagement.
Both women said the majority of St. Albert residents' feedback was respectful during engagement sessions, but the racism and discrimination generated by about 10 per cent of respondents was unlike anything they had ever encountered.
"I've never experienced this type of racism and discrimination in any community," said Gwin, who has been doing community engagement work across Alberta for 16 years.
Fontaine said racism expressed during the project discouraged people from participating in some sessions, made some Indigenous people feel unsafe and caused tremendous hurt in the community.
"Our team really did hope that by sharing this report with leadership, with council, that changes would be made internally at the city and programming would be initiated and a greater public engagement process would take place for how to restore safety in the city," Fontaine said.
She said the city has an opportunity to acknowledge the issue and take restorative action.
Focus group member Krista Osborne, a therapist and social worker in St. Albert, said she wants city council to understand the consequences of the public engagement project.
"You have to be very careful about the dangers that can pose to the community," she said.
Report recently published
CBC News requested a copy of the then-confidential Municipal Naming Project Racism, Harassment and Discrimination Summary report in March but the city said it was not in a position to release any details from it.
"Due to the nature of some of the comments, there is a real risk that releasing it could cause harm, both from a psychological and emotional perspective," communications director Paul Pearson said in an email at the time.
After CBC filed a freedom of information request for the report, the city's FOIP head said the report would be publicly available on or before May 7.
On Sunday, the city published the 45-page report on its website, with a content warning saying it had determined there was no valid legal reason not to disclose it.
"When I learned of the hurtful comments we received from some members of the community, I was sad, appalled and extremely disappointed," Mayor Cathy Heron said in a news release Monday morning.
"This is not the St. Albert I know."
She said the city recognizes there is work to be done to make the city more inclusive.
Multiple residents' comments included in the report use slurs and stereotypes to refer to Indigenous people and deny or question the fact that abuse occurred at residential schools.
One resident said in an email to project organizers that Indigenous people "were conquered by a technologically and culturally superior people" and because children were undisciplined before entering the schools they interpreted discipline as abuse.
Others insulted the people in charge of the project.
"You are mentally damaged children, full of pharmaceuticals and postmodernism," wrote one resident, who was responding to a draft policy survey.
The report said despite the project team's efforts to communicate that this type of feedback would not be tolerated, "these residents persisted either due to pure ignorance or uncontrollable desires to express hatred."
Arden Theatre event
Fontaine said at an engagement event at the Arden Theatre last November, audience members were yelling, insulting the event organizers and refusing to stop recording the session on their phones.
Corina Morin Hollingworth, a former St. Albert resident who attended the event with her husband and daughter, said attendees questioned the realities of residential schools, suggesting Indigenous people were making up stories to receive money from the government.
"That was the first time in a long time in my life where I felt, whoa, I don't know if I'm going to be safe here," she said.
Hollingworth said she could feel hatred for her identity in the room — she is a member of the Enoch Cree Nation whose parents attended residential schools. She said those schools, which were designed to assimilate children, had painful, intergenerational effects on her family and others.
She said the city should create an Indigenous department in response to the racism and discrimination report.
Fontaine said she and her colleagues had planned to have a public open house with draft policy sections for residents to comment on, but because of how the Arden event unfolded and safety concerns, they didn't hold any more in-person public events.
Instead, they made a video about the draft policy and asked residents to comment on it through a survey.
New naming policy
St. Albert's standing committee of the whole is scheduled to discuss the draft naming policy on Tuesday.
The draft policy, written by Proactive Planning's Russ Leedham, says commemorative names should be used only on rare occasions and names should not be discriminatory or reference a harm-causing person or practice.
Residents or people with substantial connections to St. Albert can apply to remove or rename a municipal asset and the city's naming committee will determine whether to recommend removal to council.
"As difficult as this project was and some of the things that came out of it, there are some positives that we can lean into and really celebrate," Gwin said.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.