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Behind the Headlines: Ray Fox dreams of sharing knowledge

'What we need is truth,' said Ray Fox, a former city councillor from North Battleford, when asked what needs to be done to heal the issues facing the community.
Ray Fox — pictured here at a North West College event — served as the first and only Indigenous city councillor for the City of North Battleford.

THE BATTLEFORDS — When Ray Fox was young, every summer his father would hitch up a team of horses, drive throughout the country picking up his sisters, cousins, aunts, and other family members and drive would drive them down to Little Sweetgrass near the North Saskatchewan River.

They would build a weir, or a fence, and in the middle, there would be a wooden crate. They would walk along the fence, driving fish into the basket. Afterwards, they would empty it on the shore and his aunties and cousins would be cleaning, smoking the fish to preserve it.

“We'd stay there for a couple of days ... and on the way back, my dad would stop at all the people’s places that we knew and give them some fish.”

Fox — a former Sweetgrass First Nation and City of North Battleford councillor — explained that when they were preparing to leave for the weir each summer, his mother would cover the table with Bannock, lard, tea, and other food.

“[She’d] leave it on a table and cover it, and I'd say, 'Mom, what are you doing that for? We're not here.' And she said, 'Well, if somebody comes to visit us and they're hungry [they’ll have something to eat].'

“And I thought to myself, well, that's kind of goofy. But she was right, “Fox said, explaining that sometimes they’d come home, and dishes would be used, food would be eaten, maybe other food would be left instead.

“There was no lock on the door, it was never locked. And so, from there to here, where 'thou shalt not steal' ... and now we're at this theft stage, and we've been modernized to not trust our neighbour anymore.

“And pretty soon we were we were being weaned off of our own religion, our own belief system, and integrated [into] what other people believe in.”

“So now, like, 100 years or so, later, we've been indoctrinated into, into their system, and now we've got us believing them God, the name of the Father, you know? Like Holy smokes. How did we get?"

Christianity vs cultural knowledge and teachings

“We had a belief system that was strictly ours because we were the only people here. The church came along, and civilization came along and said that things are wrong.

“And so a lot of the Bible got infused into the native belief system. To the point now we're over a few 100 years down the road. Now we've got things from the Bible that are all people are believing in ... they're not compatible.”

Though he’s not saying people who are religious are wrong, it’s fine it works or them, he said. But as crazy as it sounds, he says Indigenous people, more-or-less, had a more direct relationship with their creator.

But it's also a generational divide, Fox noted. He says that his granddaughter is 11 years old and in Grade 5.

“She comes to me and says, 'there’s two-spirited people, right?' Huh? It floored me. It's something that's being taught in grade five ... and we never knew that and now there's a whole different system of belief that we have to fit ourselves into.

“And it was never a part of our concept ... there's no such thing as a two spirited person for God's sake,” he added.

These things must be revisited, he says. In a book he now plans to write over the summer months, he wants to chronicle Indigenous people across the province and explain historical teachings along with history on himself.

He wants to explain the differences between yellow cloth and blue cloth, sweetgrass and sage, horse dances and sweat lodges, and why black cloth can’t be used for ceremony. He wants to talk about the importance of elders, the difference between male and female elders, in an effort to curb the ‘so-called elders popping up and confusing troubled youth sent to speak with elders.

“And the elder tells them ‘Well, 'you got to listen to your mama, you got to listen to your papa, don't fight, don't steal ... and the kid goes, 'well, s**t, I knew that already.”

And the next elder tells him something different, Fox worries.

“So those things have to have to be revisited. And we haven't reached the point where people are going to realize that there's something wrong with the system. People are too afraid, I think to, to call question of the 10 commandments.”

The role of community moving forward

It was Fox who started the food bank when the Salvation Army folded in North Battleford, he tells me. He explains there used to be long lines during summer or winter, rain or shine, snow or sleet.

He worked at the time at the Metis Friendship Centre, which he said didn’t have a good reputation at the time. The group working to find support for a food bank didn’t consider the center a viable option, Fox said.

But he eventually managed to let him take it on.

“I took over the food bank ... in the summertime. And by the time it got the fall, and [The Empty Stocking Fund for the holiday season] was coming. And we had nothing,” he said, adding that the support that came out from everyone in the community shocked him.

“Because I go into a bank, you know, and that is teller come out from behind the counter and gives me a hug and says, ‘I got this turkey in my oven,’” Fox explained, growing emotional.

“I remember the feeling. It's like, I don't know, I don't even, I can't even describe it. But the feeling was just overpowering. And it is like, talk about doing the right thing …it didn't matter if you were white, brown, black, but you knew there were people who were hurting and suffering, and you wanted to be apart of the solution.”

That’s what needs to happen today, Fox says.

But we haven’t crossed those bridges yet, Fox says. People haven’t been able to have a frank discussion about who we are as people. We need to concentrate on what we’ve got in common. The parts that aren’t in common? Well, Fox says to toss them away.

“As tough it is to say this, there are still people with their attitude, that says, 'I'm white you're black. Therefore, I'm different.”

The older people especially, Fox says, remember a different time.

“But they remember the people that were being drunk downtown ... that were sleeping in their garage,” he said.

“Also, they began to steal because they have no money ... and it's not that I'm giving them an excuse, but that's what it was. And they were addicted to things, and they wanted to drink so bad they were willing to steal it from anybody.”

The issues facing Indigenous groups

Those systemic issues are bigger than the community, Fox feels though. He noted at a meeting in Ottawa a week before this interview on March 1, that they were discussing how to help communities via food banks.

“One of the questions I had, was, 'who dropped the ball on this thing?'

“As far as I know, we're still paying taxes, we still have a government, right? They were elected to provide these things to people, to ... make sure people have food and make sure people have a place to live and so on. That's what the government was doing. That's what we're giving them our taxes,” he said.

“All of a sudden, we're the guys that are worried about feeding people. We're the guys that are worried about finding homes for people. Why is that? Who decided that? We give you guys the authority, and the power, and the money to make a difference here.”

Fox added that he went ‘backwards’ compared to most people, serving on Sweetgrass First Nation band council years after he served as the first — and only — Indigenous city councillor for North Battleford.

“And when I got to the reserve it was tough,” he said.

“For two years I sat at a table with a bunch of other people trying to figure out what he was doing. And when the two years came up. They wanted to switch the two-year term to a three-year term … I thought about it and I said ‘no, I can't, I barely survived the two years.”

When asked about Chief Lori Whitecalf's recent comments that suggesting Indigenous people are driving crime in the Battlefords is a racist comment, Fox said he hadn't heard that yet.

“Not if it's happening,” he added.

“There are no homeless people on the reserve ...because everybody has some place to sleep. Everybody has some things to eat.

“I was talking about my mother ... when we moved into town, there were times when I'd come home, late in the night, in the day, there'd be people sleeping in my bed, because my mother, let them spend the night.

“We look after each other, we take care of each other ... that's, that's the kind of people we were [but] we're not those people anymore, because some of us have been indoctrinated into some other understanding.”

Fox tells me about one of his friends and his wife who are now staying in Alberta because their granddaughter kicked them out of the house.

“You see 13-year-old kids, girls, walking down the road, stoned out of their f***ing minds. And they're headed home. And they get to their home, and their grandmother or grandfather are home, they start kicking ass with their [grandparents,]” Fox said.

“But what do I do? Call the cops?”

Is reconciliation the answer? Fox isn’t sure.

“I only became familiar with the [term] when reconciliation was being talked about,” said Fox, when asked what reconciliation meant to him.

Though he respects the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and thought they had the right idea, he feels the 94 calls to action are missing a lot. They’re trying to solve one issue, he says, but it’s more than that. It’s the whole thing.

“It just stops there, it kind of tells you ‘This could be fixed, that could be fixed, but we all know that ... and they didn't really have a lot of solutions.”

“If that [coming together] ever happens, then I think we'd be well on our way. But I don't know how to fix reconciliation in the city because people who are racist, people who aren't prejudiced [are still going to be here] ... I think they have to sort of outgrow that somehow.”

“As bad as it sounds, for me to say, what we need is truth ... you have to believe in what you're doing. If you don't believe in it, then get the hell out, let somebody else do it.”

Originally published in the Battlefords Regional News-Optimist on March 21.