This is the first of three articles on the McDougall Stoney Mission Society's efforts to have the McDougall Memorial United Church restored, and what those efforts mean for reconciliation with the Stoney Nakoda First Nations.
“Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set."
The old-testament Bible proverb hangs above a path that once led to the McDougall Memorial United Church that overlooked Morley, Alta., for 142 years before it was destroyed by fire under suspicious circumstances in 2017.
The white, wooden log church with its iconic steeple — built in 1875 in the heart of the Morleyville Settlement where the McDougall family established the first Protestant mission in the area to bring their Christian way of life to the people of the Stoney Nakoda reservation — was set ablaze on May 22, 2017.
The RCMP is investigating the early morning fire as a case of arson, but who burned the church remains a mystery.
The McDougall Stoney Mission Society, under the direction of president Brenda McQueen — the great-great-great granddaughter of George McDougall, who established the Morleyville Mission — has worked tirelessly to reconstruct the church to preserve what she sees as an important piece of the province’s pioneer history.
But members of the Stoney Nakoda First Nations are divided over whether the history of the church, inextricably linked to oppression and abuse suffered in the Morley Indian Residential School where Indigenous children were separated from their families and culture seen by missionaries as ‘contaminating’ influences, would be better left in the ground.
To many, reconciliation means giving the church land back.
The issue came to a head inside the Municipal District of Bighorn’s council chambers at an appeal hearing on Feb. 18 over a development permit issued to rebuild the church.
Nearly two dozen people packed the evening meeting, spilling out into the lobby. A framed picture of the McDougall Memorial United Church hung at the front of the room.
The Stoney Tribal Administration presented a series of arguments against the reconstruction of the church, but focused largely on what it saw as a somewhat dubious designation of the church as a “community building and facility” rather than a place of religious assembly, ostensibly to skirt local development bylaws.
“Besides the fact that the building was and is intended to be reconstructed as a church, which I would suggest in and of itself makes this a place of religious assembly based on the land use bylaws, it's clear from the activities that occur at the church, that have occurred and will continue to occur, that it is indeed a place of religious assembly," said Sara Loudin, a lawyer appearing on behalf of the Stoney Tribal Administration.
The agricultural zoning rules in the area specifically prohibit places of religious assembly, but while McQueen says the McDougall Stoney Mission Society fully intends to host two church services per year — a tradition continued even after the church was reduced to ruin — she says reconstruction plans will turn the site into something much more meaningful for the community at large.
“We will still have our two church services a year, but we will be having other events there to share and showcase the history of southern Alberta and the importance of it at this site," argued McQueen, adamant that theirs is a historical society and not a religious one.
McQueen said under her care the site went from hosting only two church services a year to holding more than a dozen events designed to bring the local settler and Indigenous communities closer.
She says the society has been working for two years to design an interpretive walk that will take visitors through the entire history of the site, including multimedia elements that will allow local Stoney Nakoda to share their stories in their Indigenous language.
“I'm here working for the Stoney Nakoda people. I want to make a difference for them. This is in my heart," McQueen said, at times choking back tears.
The McDougall Stoney Mission Society has raised nearly $400,000 to reconstruct the church using the original nails and logs, 80 per cent of which McQueen says were left intact after the fire.
Restoration efforts have already begun. The scorched lumber and metal finishes are being carefully restored by Dave Chalmers of Chalmers Heritage Conservation in Calgary.
Here, however, lies the crux of another of the Stoney Tribal Administration’s main arguments against reconstruction of the church.
In 1999, a land claim over the nearly 44-acre site the church sits on was settled where the Stoney Band surrendered the surface land to the United Church in exchange for nearly $9 million in compensation, after the church was found to be improperly collecting money from oil and gas development on the site.
A 2003 agreement between the McDougall Stoney Mission Society and the Stoney Nakoda Nations, however, gave the Nations the right to buy back the land for $10 if the church and historic designation are no longer on the land.
“A large basis of the historic designation was the church and its architecture,” Loudin said. “Obviously, as the church is no longer there, it's the position of Stoney Nakoda Nations that the basis for the Provincial Historic Designation does not exist.”
According to Loudin, the Stoney Tribal Administration sent a letter to the Alberta Ministry of Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women on Feb. 11 asking for the provincial heritage designation to be reviewed.
In short, the Stoney Tribal Administration intends to take the land back.
“Land is always connected to us," said Tracy Crawler, herself a descendant of Tatanga Mani, otherwise known as Walking Buffalo, who was a former chief and respected leader of the Bearspaw Band of the Stoney Nakoda Nations present at the signing of Treaty 7. “The Stoney Nakoda belong to that land, we did not surrender.”
For the people of the Bearspaw, Chiniki and Wesley bands — collectively the Stoney Nakoda First Nations — their feelings over the reconstruction of the church are complex.
“I am in favour of restoring the building as an interpretive trail and everything," said Elder Phillomene Stevens, who saw the reconstruction of the church as a chance to tell a comprehensive history of the area so youth “can understand what has happened.”
Margaret Rider said she did not support reconstructing the church.
She said while the United Church of Canada has officially apologized for its role in the colonization of Indigenous people in Canada and the Indian Residential School System, the local church has yet to make amends.
Until then, she said, claims of seeking genuine reconciliation in the context of the McDougall Memorial United Church remain suspect.
“We still have to work in that area of apologizing, talking about it, hearing both sides," she said.
Representatives of the Municipal District of Bighorn, having heard these arguments, said they would issue a decision about whether to uphold the McDougall Memorial United Church's development permit within two weeks.
The real question, however, is what reconciliation means to those living the truth of Alberta’s complex past.