MASKWACIS – Hobbema, Alberta, one of Canada’s most crime-ridden and troubled First Nations formally changed its name, effective January 1st. The new name is Maskwacis, which is Cree for ‘Bear Hills’. The four Cree communities that make up Maskwacis are: Samson Cree First Nation, Ermineskin Cree Nation, Montana First Nation and Louis Bull First Nation. Maskwacis is 100 km south of Edmonton.
Maskwacis made national headlines in 2008 when 2-year-old Asia Saddleback was shot in the stomach in a drive by shooting as she sat at the kitchen table eating supper. Although she survived, the bullet lodged in her spine and doctors were unable to remove it. Headlines were made again in 2011 when 5-year-old Ethan Yellowbird was shot dead while sleeping in his bed during another drive-by shooting. Both shootings were gang related.
Maskwacis has been plagued by gang violence for years.
Maskwacis is located on resource-rich land and residents decided years ago to allow oil companies onto their traditional territories to extract oil. In exchange, Maskwacis residents received hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties once they reached the age of 18. Most residents squandered the cash and now Maskwacis is plagued by alcoholism, gambling problems, domestic violence and drug abuse. When drugs came to Maskwacis, gangs soon followed.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police estimate there are approximately 5 gangs on Maskwacis, all fighting to control the drug trade. Despite this, Maskwacis has seen a steady drop in crime in the past few years. What was once understaffed, Maskwacis RCMP detachment now has 42 officers. Five officers are indigenous, two are elders and there is also a victim services unit.
What does this new name change mean for the people of Maskwacis? According to the Samson Cree First Nation website, “The official name change to ‘Maskwacis’ is seen as a welcome change. It signifies respect for our Cree way of life, our language and our authority over the traditional territories we have historically occupied.”
With 50% of their troubled community being under the age of 18, the website goes on to state, “Reclaiming our traditional names for Maskwacis territory, instills a sense of pride in Cree values, languages, culture and history and a sense of belonging among our Nations, especially our youth.”
The name Maskwacis itself refers to the traditional land, which was once covered with blueberry bushes. The berries attracted large populations of bears to the area. The Cree word for bear is ‘muskwa’. Muskwa is also significant to the history, spirituality and culture of the Plains Cree people that make up Maskwacis.
In order to get an official name change, First Nations must make a formal request to Aboriginal and Northern Development Canada. Other nations which have recently changed their names to reflect their cultures are: Whitefish Lake First Nation, which changed their name to Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation, back in October and Canoe Creek Indian Band in British Columbia, which changed its name to the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation.