STONY PLAIN, Alta. — The killings of two Metis hunters in northeastern Alberta have shaken Indigenous people in an area with a long history of tensions over race and hunting rights.
Jacob Sansom, 39, and his uncle, Maurice Cardinal, 57, were found shot to death near Sansom’s truck early Saturday. According to a family member, they were hunting on Crown land near Seibert Lake because Sansom was recently laid off as a heavy-machinery mechanic due to the economic downturn from the coronavirus pandemic.
Anthony Bilodeau, 31, of Glendon, Alta. is charged with two counts of second-degree murder in the deaths. He was denied bail Thursday.
RCMP said two vehicles had stopped on a rural road on Friday night near Glendon, about 200 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. An argument turned into a physical fight between the vehicles’ occupants, according to a police statement. A third vehicle then arrived, and several shots were fired, leaving Sansom and Cardinal dead.
I definitely think [the murders] are linked to race. I’ve thought it could’ve been me. Kyle Lafreniere
Both men held status with the Metis Nation of Alberta with designated hunting rights, including out of season, in the territories where their ancestors harvested animals, fish and medicines.
“I understand that these were two Metis men simply hunting to feed their families in a time of need,” Metis Nation of Alberta president Audrey Poitras said in a statement. “This is exactly the sort of activity that our constitutional rights as Metis people are meant to protect.”
The RCMP said they have no evidence at this point that the killings were racially motivated. But many Indigenous people who live or hunt in the area are skeptical.
“I definitely think [the murders] are linked to race. I’ve thought it could’ve been me,” Kyle Lafreniere told HuffPost Canada in reaction to the double homicide.
Lafreniere, who is Metis from Iron River, Alta., said he and his hunting partner had a scary run-in in November about 20 minutes’ drive from Friday’s crime scene. Just before daybreak on the last day of hunting season, a truck without its headlights on approached the hunters who were parked on a gravel road.
“Then he turned his headlights on,” said Kyle Lafreniere, who could see the driver was Caucasian despite the glare. “I asked him if everything was OK. And he said, ‘I’m just getting your licence plate number so I know who to shoot’ … I thought I misheard him.”
Lafreniere was stunned to hear the death threat. He had been headed to the Wolf Lake Provincial Grazing Reserve and held a valid hunting licence.
“I was doing everything by the book. I wasn’t exercising my Metis right to hunt because I come from Manitoba [originally],” he told HuffPost Canada.
The man, who looked “scruffy” and between 25 to 35 years old, told Lafreniere and his partner that his aunt and uncle lived nearby and that someone had recently shot some horses in the area.
“I said ‘I’m not here to shoot horses, I’m here to shoot a deer,’” recalled Lafreniere, who said the man repeated his threat to shoot the pair and then drove off.
“What if I didn’t have my gun on me? It could’ve been me killed,” he said.
Pamela Quinn, an elected councillor of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation about 60 kilometres south of Glendon, also believes race may have been a factor in the homicides. When her husband and son go hunting, they don’t leave the boundaries of their home community, she said, because he’s been threatened by white people more than once, and there’s “always the potential to be killed.”
“My partner has been stopped on a gravel road trying to hunt,” Quinn said. “He’s been flagged down before; questioned why they were there, and the people had their guns on them.”
It’s a scenario that’s been playing out for generations in the area, she said. Racial tensions have been in local headlines for years, from business boycotts to more recent school shooting threats in the St. Paul area.
Read Brandi Morin’s five-part series in Al Jazeera on racism and reconciliation in rural Alberta.
In November, Andrew Sydora, 70, threatened to “shoot up” the school in Ashmont, which has 90 per cent Indigenous students, as well as the Saddle Lake and Whitefish Lake nations. The threat sent the Ashmont school, as well as the Saddle Lake elementary and high schools, into lockdown for more than a week. Police increased patrols and frightened parents kept their children home.
Sydora was charged with three counts of uttering threats and released the same day. He has since repeatedly requested postponements of his court dates.
“We still have parents here that never did send their kids back to school in Ashmont,” said Quinn.
Growing food scarcity during pandemic
She’s also confused and heartbroken, she said, because the homicides happened when people should be coming together during the COVID-19 crisis.
The Crown lands are legally set aside for First Nations and Metis to hunt, but according to Quinn, much of that area is now leased out. And the chaos and growing food scarcity during the pandemic is putting extra stress on everyone.
“All of these lands are our traditional lands, but all the Crown land is gated off by the government so farmers can lease them,” she said. “However, during this time of a pandemic our hunting supply can get depleted, so we may need to hunt on Crown land.”
Lafreniere hasn’t felt comfortable hunting since that November incident. He said he reported it multiple times to the RCMP and filed an official statement at the Cold Lake RCMP detachment. It was then forwarded to the Bonnyville office and an officer contacted him, he said.
“I asked them to investigate but was referred to victim services. How hard can it be to find someone in that area who said they had relatives that lived there?” Lafreniere said RCMP never followed up after that.
Sansom was a volunteer firefighter from Nobleford, Alta. who leaves behind three young children, and Cardinal, of Bonnyville, leaves one daughter, three stepchildren and five grandchildren.
“He was our everything. We are never going to be OK. Our lives and hearts and souls are broken forever,” wrote Sansom’s wife, Sarah, in a Facebook post with a series of photos of her husband on Sunday.
The two men are described in part as “generous” with “a heart of gold” in a statement by family members released to Global News.
Quinn wants to let their families know her prayers are with them.
“This is going to be a tough time [for everyone], but to the families [of Sansom and Cardinal], we send them our love, our light. We’re grieving with them and I hope they can feel our love,” she said.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.