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Be Proud Of Who You Are with Elder Len Auger

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

You are listening to The Peyakôskân Podcast: One Nation, One Tribe. This podcast is produced on Treaty 8 Territory, the traditional territories of the many First Nations, Métis, and Inuit. We would like to express our gratitude and respect for this land and all those who reside here, both past and present. We are all treaty people. One nation, one tribe.

How do we encourage youth to embrace their cultural identity? In this episode of The Peyakôskân Podcast, Russell Willier, Brett

English, and Remi Tucker sat down with Len Auger, president of the Grande Prairie Friendship Centre, business owner, knowledge keeper, and youth mentor. Len is an inspiring community development leader, and his impact on the lives of youth is evident through his simple but profound message: "Be proud of who you are."

Remi: Welcome to the podcast. We really want to start on a serious note. Can you tell us your favourite flavour of potato chips and why it's your favourite flavour?

Len Auger: Well, I think my favourite chips are regular because they're quite salty.

Brett English: Could you tell us about the friendship center?

Len Auger: I've been involved quite a bit, so I'm quite familiar with what goes on because I'm the president. I get to hear and see everything that goes on in relation to all our programming. There's quite a history here at the Grande Prairie Friendship Centre. Our first production center opened in 1965, so we've been around for quite a while now, and as the years went on, our programs improved quite a bit, and the number of programs that we have also improved.

Most of our programs are geared towards preventative programs for children and babies, for parents, and for mothers. Then we have the supportive type programs downstairs in the outreach center. We held the Community Kitchen, which was big here in Grande Prairie. That one was in collaboration with the Salvation Army, where they used to have a soup kitchen, and we had a meals kitchen, and we combined efforts.

To me, that's probably one of the biggest programs that we have. We provide a lot of meals to our homeless people or vulnerable population, and even to our low-income families that come in for supper. When we take a look at what goes on at the Friendship Centre, I believe we have 16 official programs that require highly qualified people to be able to work in them.

We have a clothing closet where people can come in and get free clothing if they need it. When I think about a simple sentence about the Friendship Center, I believe we're here to help our people. Nowadays, it's not just indigenous. We're open to anybody, and I'm very proud of that. We do get a lot of different people of different cultures here. I think we're doing really well.

Remi: Brett and I took part in a culture camp last summer where you taught us a lot about culture and nature. Why is it the most compelling factor for you to teach youth?

Len Auger: Well, I'm a firm believer that cultural teachings, ceremonies, and traditions need to start with the youth. In fact, we may even consider starting at a younger age. When we talk about some of our programs here, they get to do a lot of cultural activities. But as we get older and join the youth groups, that's probably one of the more important phases. Not only do we get to teach the youth, but they also get involved, and they actually start doing things together.

If you remember last year too, I think we even tried to dry some meat with one group that we were with. We need to provide more reality in the teachings rather than just talk. As an example, right now, I do mentoring at the schools, and I provide cultural teachings. I bring all the medicines and allow the youth to hold and smell them so they can actually understand what the medicine is all about. I also demonstrate and talk about all the other different medicines like rat root, fungus, or chaga. They get to see that and hold it, so they know if they ever go out into the bush, they have an idea of what they're looking for. That's what I mean by incorporating more reality in our culture camps.

As an example, today I was with the Aspen Grove School's seventh-grade class, and I got them to help put up a teepee. I made them handle the poles and set them up. That's reality. They get to experience the actual things that need to be done. To me, when we talk about cultural teachings for anyone, we need to include a bit of reality in that. I firmly believe that, and I do that.

Russel Willier: Do you bring the youth out to pick herbs?

Len Auger: I have also worked with the Alberta Native Friendship Centers, of which we are a part. Every summer, we had an Elders and youth gathering at Jasper. There, we engaged in numerous cultural activities, including picking sage and other medicines.

It's a little tougher when you're with Elders because their mobility is a little different and not as good as ours. However, we take the youth out, and when we are looking for rat root, they just jump in the water and start digging it out. The Elders wouldn't do that.

I have taken many youths on various occasions. Once, I took a busload of kids to the Nordic Ski Trails, where we had about 60 grade six students. We went around picking all the different things that we could find. Before we went out, I made them offer tobacco, and I said, “We need to offer tobacco before we pick anything.” That's in respect of the tradition. Then, I made them go look for a fungus off the trees, and some of them actually did really well. When we take them, we need to ensure that we're demonstrating and showing them how to look for all the things our people have used for years.

Russel Willier: Can you tell us about your journey of becoming a small business owner?

Len Auger: There are two parts to that. In the first part, I worked for Procter Gamble for over 30 years, and during that time, I came up through the system where I was an Operator. When I first went there in my early years, I actually started when I was 18, right out of high school, and slowly worked my way up the corporate ladder. Then, in later years, I transitioned into safety and became qualified in safety management. I went on to be the safety manager at several mills in my career. For the last 16 years, I held the position of safety manager. After that, I worked at a brand-new mill in Saskatchewan for 12 years, gaining a lot of experience in safety.

To build on your question, because of my experience, certifications, and qualifications, I took early retirement and started my own safety consulting business. Now, I provide safety consulting and training services as part of my business. Additionally, over the last two, three, or four years, I've incorporated my cultural teachings into my business. These teachings are based on my experiences, personal knowledge, and interactions with other Elders. As you learn more, you discover that you can do more. I'm not a ceremony type of Elder; instead, I see myself as a Knowledge Keeper and educator.

Len Auger: The second part of your question: When I started out with the Friendship Centre when we came back to Grand Prairie in 2011, I rejoined the board. I used to be on the board before I transferred out. I was actually on the board from probably around 1974.

I was the president and in the late seventies, and eighties, a board member for many years, and I transferred away. When I came back, I got back on the board right away and went through a few different roles. But I guess in my lifetime, being part of the Friendship Centre also encouraged me to be more involved in what goes on in Grand Prairie.

What I mean by that is, there are other committees and organizations that are part of the social aspect of our lives. As an example, one of the first ones I joined was the Community Advisory Committee for the Homeless. That’s social, and it looks at all the ways that we can provide services to the homeless in Grand Prairie, including housing and support systems.

Then, because of our health issues as Indigenous people, I also applied for and got onto the Alberta Health Quality Council. It deals with all the patient and family issues that our people have and focuses on how we can get the government to change their policies and procedures to better support our community.

I do sit on a few committees. I am part of the College committee, specifically the Indigenous committee. It looks at all the different things that the College needs to be doing to emphasize and do more for our indigenous students, and perhaps even the staff—the same thing.

I am also on the new hospital committee. We want to make it a safer and more friendly place for our Indigenous people—that’s social. Our people come from all over Northern Alberta, and the hospital has a big courtyard where we have a teepee, a Red River cart, and a great big Inukshuk in the Indigenous courtyard at the hospital, all of which our committee promoted. We are also working towards having traditional gardens, just like we have here for traditional medicines.

Of course, here at the Friendship Centre, we are also growing a lot of veggies, which is good. The social aspect, to me, applies to any organization or community that deals with social issues of any kind here in Grand Prairie. I have been actively involved in lots, and it's actually quite a commitment. You have to go to a lot of meetings.

As the president of the Friendship Centre, there are always little things that need to be done. One of the roles of the president is to sit on all the committees, and although you don't really have to go to all the meetings, they appreciate it when you do show up. Being fully aware of what goes on here is important. How do you do that? Well, you go to the meetings, or I'll just talk to somebody on the committee, and usually, they let me know. They're pretty good about it.

Russel Willier: As an Indigenous Youth Career Coach, one of my roles is to help Indigenous youth feel comfortable in the workplace. How would you make a safe space for Indigenous people in the workplace? For example, we were talking about smudge rooms today, as well as having a mentor to help the youth integrate more into the workforce.

Len Auger: I think there are many aspects to your question, and the example I'll give you is, I guess, the first part. Companies have to have a commitment to hiring, and not just hiring, but also to retaining employees, regardless of whether they're youth, adults, or older people. They need to retain them, and one of the ways, part of the question is, what do they do to ensure that the workplace where they have Indigenous people working has cultural-related systems to help them while they're there? Not very many companies do that, but they are starting to do that.

Many companies are also starting to have what they call inclusivity and diverse workforces. That's really where those start and fit in. Companies are starting to make a conscious effort to help hire Indigenous people in their workforce. There are positive things going on. I was fortunate to work for Procter and Gamble where I was there for many years and, being the safety manager for my last 16 years, I got to be a mentor for a lot of our Indigenous people who were hired.

I got to work with HR (Human Resources). How do we make this a safe place for them? How do we deal with the cultural issues that they may have in the workplace? A real simple example in our culture: when our people die, many of us go to the wakes and funerals. That's a requirement, especially if they're very close relatives and even relatives. We had workers that would take off. They wouldn't tell the boss. The company and the supervisors and the managers didn't like that. But it was a cultural thing. That's just the way we did it. I had to work with the HR manager and other supervisors and say, "So, what can we do differently to help our employees so that they feel safe? It's okay for them to go to the ceremony. It's okay for them to go to wakes and funerals back home."

The company I worked for in Saskatchewan came up with policies and procedures where any overtime they worked, they could bank it so that if they had to go away for a day, two days, or three days, they still got paid. Whereas if they just get up and leave and go away, that's a risk of being fired. Anybody could be fired if you don't tell your boss where you're going. If you don't come back after a day or two, you will get towards it. Again, depending on the company, depending on their policies, how well our company is doing in their inclusivity and diversity programs and, so I would encourage people nowadays, if you're interviewing to get a job somewhere, don't be afraid to ask, "What is your inclusivity and diversity program here?"

As an example, even at the new hospital, one of my questions is, "How many Indigenous employees do you have working here?" They don't know. They don't have a number. I'm saying you should have a number or at least you should know. We have Métis people that don't self-identify as Métis. We have a lot of people still that don't identify as Métis, unless you have a Métis card or a Treaty card, that's your only definite definition of who you are. But we have a lot of people that don't have Métis cards. We have a lot of Indigenous people that don't have Treaty cards but are still Indigenous.

All right, going to the college, how many Indigenous people work at the college? We should be asking those questions. We should be asking what inclusivity and diversity program do you have. That's up to us to ask. We need to put them on the spot. Building on your question, we need to start that in high school. Kids in high school, part of your job, are they asking that question when in careers, when they go work for somebody? Some people might be afraid to ask a question, but we need our own people to be asking those questions.

As I said, there are a lot of good companies out there.

As an example, because I'm familiar with Careers and Dale, I do know them because I met them at the high schools where I do mentoring. Great programs. I think we're on the right track with Careers and other similar programs like that.

Even at Bridge Network, the school, is helping quite a bit. Those programs are designed to help all the people who are having problems and dealing with day-to-day stuff that's going on. That's the only way they're going to survive. We provide the help.

Cara: I'm going to flip the script and ask you one: Do you have any questions for these three young Indigenous people here?

Len Auger: Well, I would like to build on the statement. For the three of you, how often do you really, really identify yourself as indigenous? What I mean by that is, how many people know who you are, where you are from? When I work with high school students and even the youth, I always ask them, "Who are you? Where are you from? Are you Indigenous?" You know, I went to Peace Wapiti last fall in September, and I was with the grade 12’s, and I asked everybody, "Who are you? Where are your mom and dad from? Are you Métis or Indigenous?" Most of the class was non-Indigenous, there were maybe a half dozen that were, and some of them were shy or ashamed to say, “I’m Métis.”

There's a lot of that. You need to remember that when you're out there in life, be proud of who you are. That's what I tell everybody when I do mentor at the high schools. Be proud of who you are. Find out who you are. Who's Métis? Is it your mom, your dad, or your grandparents?

I had one young kid who said, "No, my great-grandma is a Cree Indian." Perfect. Your Métis. He is blond, blue-eyed, and white, but he was a Métis. Encourage everybody to do that. Don't ever be afraid. Lead by example. Don't be afraid to say who you are.

When I was at Peace Wapiti, there was a young guy there. I asked him, "Who are you?" He gave me a strange name. He was actually a Ukrainian student from the Ukrainian War. I said, "Okay, be proud. You're Ukrainian. Be proud of who you are." I highly encourage you guys as youth, and as you get older, don't be afraid to stand up and be counted.

Len Auger: My question to you, Remi, is who are you and who are your parents? Do you know your parents' background? That's a start to finding out who you are.

Remi: Well, I only started embracing the fact that I am Indigenous about a year ago because my biological grandmother, who is Indigenous and is Ojibwe, from Kettle and Stony Point, Ontario, jumped into the picture a few years ago when Covid first started. She came and stayed with us for a bit, and then it turned into a long-term thing. I talked to her, and I ask her for advice all the time, and I don't really know anything about my dad's side or my mom's dad's side or anything. All I know is what I know.

Len Auger: Would your grandmother be from your mom or your grandmother be from your dad?

Remi: My grandmother is from my mom's side.

Len Auger: Now you have an idea of your family tree. If you are to take a look at your family tree, is your grandmother still alive?

Remi: Yes.

Len Auger: She'd be the one to ask who her mother is and who her grandmother is. You want to start looking at your family tree and be proud of that. I'm Indigenous because of this. When you get older and you get married and you have 20 kids, okay, five. They're going to want to know what their Indigenous background is. To me, it's up to the parents to provide their kids with where they're from. I encourage all the kids, don't be afraid to ask your dad.

Interestingly, most kids that I work with come from single-parent families. Some of them haven't talked to their dad for quite a while. But there is a phone. You probably have talked to them at some point. Don't be afraid to sit down with your dad or whoever and say, "Tell me about your family. Tell me where they are. How many aunties and uncles do I have? How many cousins do I have? Do you know?" You're trying to look up your family tree by asking those questions. Playing back to your mom's side, how many aunties and uncles would you have from your mom's side?

Remi: We don't actually get the privilege to know any of this because my grandmother was taken in the Sixties Scoop.

Len Auger: That is reality. I mean, we have some parents from single-parent families. We have some fathers who don't want to have anything to do with their family, or they don't want to have anything to do with their kids. They stay right out of it. But to me, I would still be digging. I would still be phoning. I would still be asking. Maybe someday, they will talk with you, but you got to keep at it and don't give up on wanting to know my family tree. Like right now, I can tell you that my dad had 18 brothers and sisters, so I have about 100 cousins just because of that because every family has 5 to 10 kids in my generation. If you ever get a chance, phone your grandmother, and say, "Tell me a little bit more about who you are and where you come from." How about you? Who are you?

Brett: My name is Brett English, and there's a funny story about my last name. Imagine this: My great, great, great uncle went up to one of the guys who gave out English last names. It's like the French got defeated by the English. He went up to one of the guys that gave out English last names, my great, great, great great grandfather, he only spoke French, so he said, "Okay, Englishman." He just insulted the whole thing. I could have been Brett French, so that would really be funny.

Len Auger: One of the ways a lot of our people got their names is because of the Voyagers, the Missionaries, and the Indian agents. The guys who were documenting even during the treaty signing were giving out names.

As an example, our family is "Auger," which is French. A lot of people from down South, they have really nice, interesting names, so maybe that's what you ended up with.

Brett: So, my mother, well I know what the both of them are. My mother is from Siksika and my dad is from Piikani.

Len Auger: Why? Something to do with Treaty?

Brett: I'm not really sure. But I know that I'm that, and my ancestry goes back a bit more. My auntie told me one of my great-great-uncles did sign one of the Treaties and…

Len Auger: Could that be Treaty 4 by the way? That's South Piikani, isn’t it?

Brett: I think so. My grandfather’s dad was German, so he came from Germany. I do have some British blood, but I don't like talking about it because of Colonization.

Len Auger: I guess my point to that would be, don't be afraid. Know your background, no matter what. You're right; you don't need to talk about this. There is some German blood somewhere in our family line. Leave it at that. You don't need to defend it.

Brett: At my old school, I had longer hair, and I would braid it every single day. Everyone would make fun of it, and it got to the point that I ended up cutting it because I got bullied. But now I'm starting to get back into it: dancing and respecting my culture. Me and my cousin make so many Native jokes. The teachers stopped telling us to stop.

Len Auger: Well, you're doing all of that in our culture. Humour is really big. But watch out. I'm okay with people using the word "Indian" to me in a respectful manner, but when it's used in a derogatory way... Watch out for what you guys do, as somebody might interpret it the wrong way. If you can do that between just the two of you, rather than in any groups or anything.

It sounds like you have a fairly good knowledge of your family tree, and that's all we're asking. When we ask, "Who are you?" be proud of who you are. If people ask you, say, "I'm Piikani." Don't ever be afraid to say, "I'm Cree, and I'm from Northern Alberta. I'm a Big Stone Cree member, a member of Treaty 8," and that's how I address myself when people ask.

Brett: I'm planning to get a Piikani flag because I have a German flag to honour my German heritage. I have a Canadian flag to honour being on Canadian soil. I have a British flag as well to honour the British side.

Len Auger: Did You also say Siksika? Those are two different languages.

Brett: Yes, I'm actually I have an app on my phone. I have two apps that teach me both languages, so I'm going to try to learn both of them and speak.

Len Auger: I speak 100% Cree. I speak both.

Anyway, I know your grandmother, Loretta. I know she's very proud of her family. She always talks about her history or family background from Piikani. If you follow her lead on how she is culturally, I think you could be a great leader down the road. You do ceremonies, you're already way ahead of a lot of our Indigenous youth. Don't be afraid to show them and talk to them and help them choose to do the same things. Be proud of who you are and don't be afraid to get other people involved.

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