The shooting death of a young Indigenous man is igniting conversations about racism and motivating two rural Alberta communities to confront the tensions that have long divided them.
In many ways, Kristian Ayoungman was seen as an example of reconciliation in action. He lived on the Siksika First Nation, but growing up, he went to school and played hockey in Strathmore, Alta., a small town 20 kilometres north of the reserve.
He was seen as a bridge between the two communities in which he lived — until the night in March when he was shot and killed.
A couple of days later, two men from Strathmore were charged with first degree murder in the 24-year-old’s death.
“My son was a very, very good kid, and well loved and liked by everybody,” said Melodie Ayoungman, Kristian’s mother. “And the reality behind it is, it was an act of racism that took his life. And that’s hard for me to comprehend.”
Ayoungman said she believes her son’s death was the result of racism, because of what happened in the hours before the shooting.
Kristian, a champion pow-wow dancer on the reserve, was also a hockey star in town. On March 17, he played in an alumni hockey game in Strathmore.
Kristian and his friends Brooker Prettyyoungman, Ryley McMaster and Breanna Crawler went to a local pub after the game. They say at the end of the night an exchange with strangers outside the bar led to a fight that was peppered with racial slurs.
“He was like just calling me names, and he told me ‘to go back to the f–king reserve you f–king dirty Indians … get the f–k out of here,'” Crawler said.
She added that she didn’t know the man who yelled at her, but now believes it was Kody Giffen, one of the men charged with Ayoungman’s murder.
“I was looking at him and I was like, ‘Are you serious? Like, don’t talk to me like that.’ I’m like, that’s racist, right?”
Crawler, McMaster and Prettyyoungman say the altercation didn’t last long and the two groups separated.
They ran into each other again shortly afterwards, but this time, they say the group of men was larger and they had weapons.
Crawler said when she and her friends saw a gun, they got into their truck and tried to leave. They said the men got into another vehicle and chased them out of town.
Crawler was driving the truck and headed toward Siksika when she heard a gunshot.
“I looked in the rear-view mirror. And by that time, that white car was behind me … I seen it stop in like five seconds, it was like really fast. We heard a shot,” Crawler said.
“I felt something on my back … and I was thinking, like, I was thinking to myself did I get shot? Did I get shot? …. And then Kristian said, ‘They got me, bro. They got me.'”
Ayoungman had been shot. His friends got him out of the truck, and he died on the side of the road south of Strathmore.
Prettyyoungman and Crawler didn’t see where the shot came from or who fired the gun that killed Ayoungman.
Two days later on March 19, Kody Giffen, 22, and his brother Brandon, 25, — both from Strathmore — were charged with first degree murder.
Brandon Giffen is in custody and Kody Giffen was granted bail in August. Both are scheduled to appear in court in the new year.
CBC News reached out to both for comment, but they declined through their lawyers.
‘We didn’t want that to escalate’
Although the trial of the brothers is several months away, some in the community are drawing parallels to the high-profile death of Colten Boushie, a young Indigenous man shot and killed by a white man in rural Saskatchewan in 2016. Unlike Boushie, Ayoungman’s death received very little media attention.
In the immediate aftermath of his death, avoiding the media was part of a strategy by Ayoungman’s family and Siksika leadership to keep racial tensions from escalating.
Buck Breaker, a councillor on the Siksika First Nation, said he worried that if they didn’t handle the situation carefully, more violence would follow.
“I’ll make reference to the Colton Boushie tragedy — we didn’t want to, like I said, cause any more animosity than was already there. A lot of our people were angry, and still are. But you know, we had to be careful on what we say,” Breaker said.
“A lot of the tension is on social media, Facebook or whatever, so we didn’t want that to escalate to the point where our young people would go into Strathmore and take more action. If that was what would have happened — the jail cells would have been full and the morgue would have been full and the courthouse would have been full.”
Melodie Ayoungman was pivotal in helping to keep people calm.
She set the tone for how both communities would respond to Ayoungman’s death. Instead of turning to anger, she turned to her Blackfoot culture and the teachings from her grandparents and called for peace between the two communities.
“My son’s life was taken in the wrong way, but this isn’t the way we’re going to deal with it. Not with revenge. We weren’t taught like that,” she said.
The situation was so tense, Melodie Ayoungman heard that people from the reserve, including Prettyoungman and Crawler, were worried about going into Strathmore after Kristian’s death.
“They were traumatized,” Ayoungman said. “I didn’t want our community to be afraid or feel scared. [I wanted] to show them, ‘No, you can keep your head up. Be proud of who you are. Be proud of where you come from. We belong here.'”
Ayoungman organized a candlelight vigil. People from her community travelled from Siksika into Strathmore, where they were met by dozens of people in town to honour her son.
Strathmore mayor Pat Fule was among them. He’s a longtime resident in Strathmore and a former teacher. Following the vigil, he took an unusual step that he said upset some residents of the predominantly white town. He wrote a letter in the local paper, admitting there was racism in Strathmore and called on people to confront it directly.
He wrote: “Until we can admit that racism is here — and due to the recent murder, our neighbours now worry about coming to Strathmore — we can’t improve.”
Fule said there was a mixed reaction to his letter, but that it was an important step to building a better relationship between the two communities.
“I was worried about the controversy … but sometimes you have to do the right thing even if the right thing is the most painful or difficult thing to do. And so I decided I would do that.”
Since Ayoungman’s death last spring, Siksika and Strathmore leadership have been holding regular meetings — something that had never happened before, even though the two communities have been been neighbours for more than 100 years. Outside of school or sports, Mayor Fule said there was very little interaction between the two communities.
“Now, I’m saying hi to a First Nations person I run into at a store where maybe before I would [not]. I would not be rude or anything, but you just get comfortable in not doing things, you just interact silently,” said Mayor Fule. “And so I’m reaching out a little more, I’m holding doors, I’m saying hi.”
It’s too early to say whether the efforts of the community leaders will lead to reconciliation. The steps are small and the progress is slow, but Melodie Ayoungman has big hopes.
She wants her son’s tragic death to be a wake-up call for her community and others like it.
“I hope that this can change the future for First Nations, because there’s so much injustice towards First Nations and times need to change. Maybe this is one of the cases that can make that change happen.”
WATCH | The National’s story on the Kristian Ayoungman shooting:
The killing of an Indigenous man in Alberta has brought two communities together to try and confront the racial tensions that have divided them. 7:02