A millennial Indigenous leader sees tradition and progress as keys to his community's future
In the basement of Our Lady of Mercy Parish, a modern brick church visible from the highway that runs past Enoch Cree Nation, Chief Billy Morin stands among roughly 50 elders and says, “I have important news. I want feedback on it.”
The monthly meeting is running late, threatening to cut into a medical appointment the chief has in nearby Edmonton. Still, Morin (Civil Engineering Technology ’11; Bachelor of Technology in Technology Management ’13) hasn’t rushed things. Earlier, when the elders arrived, he greeted them individually as they took chairs at a couple dozen collapsible tables arranged in a square. Then he gave them the floor.
Since being elected chief in 2015 at the age of 28, less than half that of almost everyone in the room, Morin has considered listening to be one of his primary responsibilities. Dressed in a purple Tommy Hilfiger knitted sweater and dark pants, his long black hair tied in a braid that ends about six inches above his waist, he rocked on his heels and heard concerns about school bussing issues, who to call at the band office when appliances break down and local backroad speed limits being too high.
After promising action on the speed limit and other issues, he moved to the matter on which he needs feedback and guidance: the past use of Enoch as a bombing range.
Located immediately west of Edmonton and home to more than 2,000 people, Enoch lands were once used for military practice. From 1942 to 1946, Canadian and allied planes dropped what band council believes to be 140,000 to 200,000 flash or smoke bombs. Analysis of the site several years ago raised fears of unexploded munitions on the local golf course, forcing its closure in 2014. More profoundly disruptive, however, the bombing put Yekau Lake off limits.
Located at the centre of the 6.5-by-eight-kilometre reservation, the lake and its shores were once a key site of ceremony, culture and identity for this Cree community. Now, for the same reasons as the golf course, as well as concerns over contamination, the area is deemed unsafe.
“Nobody goes there,” says Morin.
Tens of millions are needed for reclamation work required to change that – the topic of current land claim negotiations with the federal government. While offers are lower than the nation wants, Morin knows the window for bargaining is closing.
“We have a really friendly government right now,” he tells the elders. “Once they go into election mode [in 2019], everything stops.”
Numbers are discussed and Morin is trusted to take the advice and proceed as he sees fit. But a question is raised: Can any of the claim be distributed among band members? This is a community, after all, where the median individual income hovers around $20,000, or roughly half that of the rest of Alberta.
It’s here that Morin’s distinction as a leader comes to light. Guided by his administration’s vision of prosperity, unity and self-sufficiency, he’s not opposed to the idea of redistribution but wants to ensure that the bulk of the money is used in a way that will benefit future generations at Enoch as much as current ones. Otherwise, “Where’s the first place that money will be spent?” Morin asks the elders. “Edmonton.”
With time running out before his medical appointment, discussion turns to other matters before the meeting ends with a bit of fun: a raffle. Among the prizes are passes for a show at the River Cree Casino and Resort. “Who wants Charlie Pride tickets?” asks Morin. He begins to read out raffle ticket numbers in Cree. At one point, he pauses thoughtfully mid-sequence, as if searching for the connection between his first language, English, and the one he’s now trying to become fluent in as a young leader eager to balance tradition with progress. Confident he’s got it, he smiles and carries on.
Beyond River Cree
By the meeting’s end, River Cree Resort and Casino has already been open for more than two hours, and will be until 3 a.m., as it is every day.
Established by Enoch First Nation in 2006 with Las Vegas partners they have since bought out, it’s austerely decorated in wood and stone and impressive for its size. As if to rival nearby West Edmonton Mall in sprawl, it features 1,150 slot machines, 40 gaming tables, two NHL-sized ice rinks, a 2,500-seat concert venue, a 249-room hotel (formerly a Marriott that the band has also bought out), and half a dozen restaurants and cafes under the guidance of executive chef Shane Chartrand (Cook ’04), a rapidly rising culinary star of Cree heritage. The casino alone is one of the province’s largest, and the biggest among those run by First Nations (of which it was Alberta’s first).
Economically, it means almost everything to Enoch First Nation. “If Alberta has oil and gas, we have River Cree,” says Morin. “It’s the golden goose.”
Chief and council oversee a budget that includes roughly $90 million in revenue. Of that, $50 million to 60 million comes from the resort. Perhaps seeing too many golden eggs in one basket, Morin is looking beyond River Cree. “We need to diversify.”
“If Alberta has oil and gas, we have River Cree. It’s the golden goose.”
Since becoming the youngest chief in Enoch’s modern history, economic development has been one of Morin’s main concerns. “I always had this dream of building things – literally, things you can touch, roads, buildings,” he says, explaining what drew him to Civil Engineering Technology. “I love that.” At Enoch, that vision first manifest as a few new offices and shops soon opening near the resort. “Nothing huge, nothing that’s a home run like River Cree but we’re getting on base.”
The lineup of projects to come looks like an attempt to load the bases. Morin and his council have $60 million worth of development on the books, including an industrial park. Its first client, a major pipeline company, is eager to move in, says Morin. He acknowledges that revenue from the park will be a fraction of that generated by River Cree but considers it a “trigger” for more business and jobs for locals (the nation has higher rates of employment than average for Indigenous communities in Alberta, though they remain lower than the provincial average).
Another catalyst may be just as promising, if slightly controversial. In March 2017, Morin’s administration signed a memorandum of understanding with the City of Edmonton for regular meetings to discuss opportunities for such things as economic development, tourism, infrastructure and more, as well as continued relationship building between the two governments. That agreement had detractors at Enoch, says the chief, adding that some band members harbour deep distrust of non-Indigenous society.
“The relationship with the City of Edmonton has never really been defined over our 100-year history – other than a few handshakes and some offside stuff at the get-go,” says Morin. The capital sits on traditional territory the nation never intentionally surrendered, he points out, “but we recognize today’s realities.”
Eager to push boundaries, however, even those considered taboo, he enjoys the challenge of generating consensus. That’s a trait instructor Dr. Rhonda Betker remembers of him when he studied leadership at NAIT as part of his Bachelor of Technology in Technology Management.
“A true leader is transparent and not afraid to challenge the status quo,” she says. Even back then, she adds, Morin’s values and beliefs were clear, as was his intention to put them to use in improving Enoch. “He’s for the greater good.”
Sometimes, that greater good requires reframing relationships tainted by history. “How can you ignore a million people in a municipality like that and not want to have a good relationship with them for mutual benefit?” says Morin. “It’s working together, at the end of the day.”
Everyone working together
Morin has a natural ability to rally people around a cause. Being gregarious helps.
When I arrive at Enoch before the elders’ meeting, the office of the chief and council is abuzz. After I enter a room full of half a dozen occupied cubicles and say I’m there to see Chief Morin, a woman heads into an adjacent office to let him know I’m there, as he’d expected.
“Scott?” I hear him shout, with a joking bluster. “Scott who?”
She comes back out smiling and sends me in, and I find the chief sitting with Chase Morin, chief of staff, and human resource director Jonathan Morin. They’re hunched over papers on a small table at one end of the office. On shelves around them sit four or five headdresses, one atop a replica of the Stanley Cup.
“I’m just joshing with you,” the chief says cheerfully as he extends a hand to me. “Billy,” he adds.
For a few minutes, Morin and his team review items of the day and what they’ll cover at the elders’ meeting. The monthly meeting is an extension of his interest in being among the people but it’s much more than that.
“It’s important to me because community engagement is important, period,” he says. He sees the meetings, which he implemented when he took office, as a way to give members a voice and a forum to make contributions to the nation. “You can’t do things as chief and council on your own.”
"Community engagement is important, period."
Victor Houle (Construction Engineering Technology ’91) is part of the team that helps get some of those things done – big things, in his case. As executive director of infrastructure, he’s currently overseeing construction of a new, $21-million, K-12 school. He’s also in charge of more than $12 million worth of work to extend the City of Edmonton water connection that services River Cree to other parts of the nation, which has outgrown its network of wells.
“In our language we take pride in the word mâmawhikamatowin – a theme [Morin] used in his last campaign – everyone working together,” says Houle. “Sîhtôskatowin is another: supporting one another.”
Morin gives his staff the freedom to do that, Houle says, trusting them to come together to fulfil expectations. “He can be very direct in wanting things,” he adds, “but not in an arrogant way. He’ll make the tough calls that need to be made. To be able to make those moves and still maintain those relationships with the membership speaks a lot for the young man.”
A rival family
Sometimes, talent comes at a cost. The elders’ meeting over, Morin and I sit in the basement cafeteria of the Royal Alexandra Hospital in central Edmonton. He’s scheduled for a CAT scan in about 45 minutes – preparation for surgery in the weeks to come.
Soon after inauguration for his second term, the young chief was hospitalized with severe abdominal pain. He thought it was gallstones; it was, but caused by pancreatitis – “way more severe,” he says. Morin spent the next 18 days in the University of Alberta Hospital. Doctors blamed poor diet, lack of exercise and excessive stress.
Jim Brule (pictured with Morin), who is part of a smaller group of elders known as the wisdom council, which meets with the chief to discuss emerging challenges, remembers the demands and difficulties.
Starting at the age of 30, he served as chief from 1977 to 1981. Brule describes the job as a more intimate style of leadership than might be seen of a mayor or premier, and recalls fielding frequent personal requests from community members. Traditionally, chief and council at the First Nation play a relatively direct role in family life, assisting with housing, education, social programs and more.
“You have to be accountable to each and every [member],” says Brule, who also had a young family when he took office. “It becomes a 24/7 job. When you leave the office it continues.”
Felecia Chalifoux (Geological Technology ’12) does what she can to make that job easier for Morin, her partner of 14 years. When the chief won another term last summer, she agreed to put her job as a field tech with a local civil engineering firm on hold for a year to stay home with their three boys, aged 11, two and one. That Morin has to give the majority of his time to Enoch right now isn’t a surprise to her.
“He said he was going to be chief one day,” says Chalifoux, thinking back on their early years together. “He said it was his dream job. I’m really happy for him. And I like being there and being able to support him in any way I can.”
“He said he was going to be chief one day.”
Sometimes that means protecting him from himself. After coming home from surgery to remove his gallbladder and repair his pancreas a few weeks after that CAT scan, Morin would sneak out of the house for work, ignoring Chalifoux’s admonishments to stay home and rest. With his health now returning, she’ll often hide his phone when he comes home, which tends to be late in the evening. “When I need to, I put my foot down,” she says.
Chalifoux acknowledges that Enoch demands as much time as if it were another family. A number of staff – including cousins Chase and Jonathan – are Morin’s relatives. The council is related to one another by varying degrees – and she’s accepted it. In her view, it’s how he’s “making the reserve better for future generations.”
Brule agrees. The former chief likes the progress that Morin has made so far and the processes behind it. “He stuck to his word that he would be there for the people,” says Brule. “He’s done very good for the band.”
A key to unlocking a future
That’s despite the unavoidable limitations of being young. There’s first-hand knowledge and experience that falls outside of Morin’s years – like what it meant to lose Yekau Lake.
The practice bombing in the 1940s shrunk the usable land at Enoch, adding to an injury inflicted 40 years prior, when the federal government reduced the size of the nation’s land by 6,150 hectares (15,200 acres). The redrawing of borders made the lake “literally the heart of the nation,” says Morin. “It is directly in the centre of our land – about one-sixteenth of our nation.”
Size is only part of the issue. The possibility of unexploded ordnance and bombing contaminants have effectively arrested cultural activities that once took place at Yekau Lake. Picking herbs for medicine and trapping used to happen here, says Morin, as did one of the most important of Indigenous ceremonies, the Sun Dance, in which participants made personal sacrifices to give thanks to the creator or have prayers answered.
“Where the community used to gather is that lake.”
He’s seen the outcome of losing that.
“I would say it’s directly related to our loss of culture. When your Sun Dance site gets bombed out, literally, it’s contributed to us losing our language, us losing our ceremony.”
When Morin speaks of ceremony and its impact at Enoch, or Maskekosihk, as he prefers to call it, it’s like education. As a millennial, Morin is part of one a highly globalized generation. His dad, William Morin III, got him started, reading encyclopedias to him as a kid, giving him a worldview that would be sharpened and expanded by the internet. Ceremony and spirituality, however, are the tools that bring Morin a local focus and deeper meaning. It’s something he can’t and won’t try to rationalize.
“I went to NAIT and studied highway design and I know all that stuff,” he says. “But there are things in this world that I cannot explain. We will get guidance from our ceremonies and ancestors and you can’t get that in any book.”
"We will get guidance from our ceremonies and ancestors and you can’t get that in any book.”
Morin won’t say he’s the person who will restore the symbolic and literal heart of Enoch in Yekau Lake, even if chances are good that a settlement will be reached by the summer. He believes too much work has been done by his predecessors before he got to the negotiating table. But the significance of what it means to his own identity, as possibly being the person to bring closure when land claim talks resume later this summer, isn’t lost on him.
During recovery from his surgery, Morin lay in his hospital bed thinking (Felecia had taken his phone away) about himself in relation to his role as chief. He’d envisioned taking on the job as far back as childhood, feeling that what he was learning from his dad somehow held a key to unlocking a future of doing “something special” for his community. But he never would have foreseen the struggle for balance that leadership would require. Today, Morin is accountable to elders in a church basement and to the federal government. He’s a steward of tradition and a manager of multimillion-dollar budgets. He’s a leader dedicated to his nation’s sovereignty. And he’s a dad who wants to do more for his kids. His thoughts returned to the end of our conversation before his CAT scan.
“I don’t know if we’ve talked about Billy the person,” he’d said, as we considered what more to discuss. He wondered, with noticeable concern: is that person distinct from Billy the chief?
The answer he arrived at draws a line to that moment at the elders’ meeting, reading off raffle numbers, pausing briefly to make a connection between languages and cultures, but struggling less and less to do so with each day spent moving his community toward the prosperity he envisions.
“The good answer is that there is no difference,” he says. “There’s no line. I can be myself. I get to be Billy. I think that’s the best way to do leadership.”
This article appears in the spring 2018 issue of techlife magazine.