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Athabasca Tribal Council

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The Athabasca Tribal Council (ATC) is a free association of the First Nations governments of the original people of North-Eastern Alberta. It is not a governing body but the primary service provision organization that works for its constituent people, offering advice, services and programs geared towards its 5000 members. In addition it is watchful over the Treaty rights (Treaty 8 of 1899) and maintains an optimistic vigilance over the land and the rights of the people who live there. Currently they represent the Athabasca Chipewyan, Fort McKay, Chipewyan Prairie, Fort McMurray Number 468 and Mikisew Cree First Nations.

In a message from the Assembly of First Nations National Chief at the time of the ATC’s 20th Anniversary, Phil Fontaine was quite candid about the role of the ATC.

“Over 100 years ago, when Treaty 8 was signed between the Cree and Dene Peoples of northwestern Canada and the Canadian government, First Nations were free and independent people. Unfortunately, over much of the next century that freedom and independence gradually slipped away. The tragedies of the residential school system wounded many individuals and cut family and community ties, and government stepped into the void the system created. European settlements and growth in resource industries came in conflict with traditional First Nations ways of life. First Nations found themselves with little say in how they lived their lives. In the 1980s, an opportunity to begin reclaiming our sovereignty presented itself when the Canadian government began closing its regional and district offices and downloading the responsibility for helping individual First Nations to manage their affairs to newly created Tribal Councils. In 1988 the five First Nations representing the Cree and Dene Peoples of northeastern Alberta seized the opportunity presented, and formed the Athabasca Tribal Council.

The goal of the Athabasca Tribal Council was two-fold from the beginning. First, it was founded to take over the role of the Indian agent and help its member Nations develop the capacity to govern themselves. Second, it was to band together as a means of dealing more effectively with regional issues affecting all their members.”

Former Fort McMurray First Nation Chief Robert Cree said at the time that the founding of the ATC came when the local First Nations were looking to make themselves both politically and economically stronger. Organizations like the Athabasca Native Development Council were being formed so First Nations could expand their economic horizons. “We were getting left behind,” he explains. “The Athabasca Native Development Council was about negotiating contractual agreements and workforce agreements with Syncrude. Other companies followed with similar agreements, and it worked then and it is still working today.

Some of the shared services that the ATC co-ordinate include child and family services, education and employment and training, These are offered to all members across a wide stretch of Northern Alberta.

The area that is covered by the ATC largely coincides with the geography of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. It is nearly 61 500 sq/km in area and if it was a country it would be #123 in size, next in line after Latvia and bigger than Switzerland, Costa Rica, Taiwan and the Netherlands. This doesn’t even compare to the Treaty area it is part of, which at 840 000 sq/km puts it on a par with Egypt, France and Turkey. If the Treaty land was a country, it would be the 34th largest in the world, out of nearly 200. That’s a lot of geography.

It’s a large area that was badly scarred during the fires of 2016. The ATC office was nearly the only building to remain after Waterways was decimated, but it was still badly damaged. The ATC staff, aware of the need to keep providing services, moved to a temporary setup while the renovations were done to their building and ten months later they moved back. “The staff were incredible, resilient throughout the past year. It has been a traumatic time for all, but the ATC was able to keep operating, serving its constituents post-wildfire,” says Farrington.

The ATC, in its mission statement to the groups it represents, promises to work with integrity, to build trust, to persevere in an optimistic manner and to be accountable. To do this, and more importantly to be seen to work in such a manner, needs open and available communications channels. One of the most important parts of this is a web presence that is a utility to the membership of the ATC. In keeping with this mandate to make services available, the ATC has been redesigning the website and updating it so as to offer a more efficient interface and its launch will be rolled out in the first half of 2017. The design for the new website looked to reflect the Athabasca Tribal Council’s corporate identity. Care was taken in all aspects of the redesign to ensure that it reflected a strong unified image of the organization. In particular, the new logo consists of a powerful eagle element overseeing and supporting the Nations served by the ATC serve, represented by the trees. The river represents the landscape in which the Nations reside. The Logo Symbol is a powerful image evoking the mission and vision of the ATC - the connection between ATC and the Nations it serves.

“Some of our people live in areas where internet connections are not always the best,” said Maggie Farrington, the ATC Chief Executive Officer. “Our new website is easier to navigate and works neatly and easily across many platforms. It’s important to us that our services can be accessed by phone or tablet as well as a desktop or laptop. Some of the services we offer are time sensitive, like transport assistance to medical appointments. A website that is easy to access is a priority for us as it will enable us to think about how we can expand our services.

The new website has been designed to make content the key. Bold easy-to-read type and simple menus make finding information easier than before. The screens are simple and quick to navigate, and in time many of the services that the ATC offer from their offices will be initiated through web appointments and bookings. “We’re not looking to be daring and innovative. It’s service first,” says Farrington. “That’s what’s important to us.”

Ryan Janvier, the website designer and developer wanted to keep things simple. “Website design went through a crazy stage a few years back. Processing speeds seemed to be doubling every year and the designs were big and ponderous, with a lot of unnecessary graphics taking up a lot of memory. Then customers started realizing that content was the most important part of a website. The number one reason that people revisited a website was if it was useful, not because it had pretty pictures.”

So if ease of function and useful content are the first two goals of the redesign, what else is needed?

“Adaptability is important,” says Janvier, “The hope is that an uptick in web usage will open up new areas of service and indicate things we need to be covering.”

 As the membership realizes what a useful tool the new website is, it is hoped that suggestions for new services expand the utility.

Currently the website will focus on available programs and services, news and updates, a calendar of upcoming events, a newsletter and a brief history of the ATC and the people who belong to it. In this way it also serves as an introduction to visitors wanting to know more and will link back to the member web pages as well.

In addition to the new website, the ATC launched a new app in March, an introduction to the Cree dialect, (a similar app for the Denesuline language is also being developed).

ATC Cree is available as a free download and initially will consist of more than 100 Cree words and phrases, including pronunciation guides by expert speakers. This database will be increased in the future. The app is aimed at the youth in the community and is about bringing pride back to their heritage. Language is a big part of cultural identity, and the app is seen as a stepping stone to creating interest in learning how to speak Cree among those who have lost the language.

The ATC is always looking to add value to the services it provides its member nations. The apps and the website are part of that continuous enhancement.