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Robyn Paches brings Athabasca to the world

Small-town roots helping him toward making big changes in the big city
20200625 Robyn Paches_SUB_WEB
Growing up in the Athabasca area instilled a passion for helping others and a desire to build connections and community which is exactly what Robyn Paches, 27, is doing. In a few short years since moving to Edmonton he ran an $18 million budget for the U of A Students' Union, is developing a startup business, works full time and is facing the challenge of renaming the Oliver community in Edmonton to rid itself of the racist legacy of its namesake.

ATHABASCA — When Robyn Paches was nominated as one of EDify magazine’s Top 40 under 40 in November it introduced the world to the young, energetic Athabasca man both making his own mark on the world while trying to heal the marks left by those once revered by making space for Indigenous voices to be heard. 

It’s not just anyone who gets to stand with then-City of Edmonton mayor Don Iveson as he announced expanded accessible and affordable student transportation; or helping to oversee an $18-million budget for the University of Alberta Students' Union; or being featured in an Edmonton Youth Council write-up all before turning 27, but Paches had done that and more and credits growing up in Athabasca for all of it.

Paches volunteered for almost five years on the Colinton Fire Department alongside his father Murray and worked at the now closed Sears store for Orest Wintonyk building those relationships.  

“I definitely attribute a lot of where I'm going and what I've done to that,” he said in a Nov. 30 interview while on business in North Saanich, B.C. “I wouldn't trade that upbringing for the world. I love the community; I like the relationships that I built and what I learned there.” 

He’s being interviewed in his car stopped on a side street because of his work with Studentcare, a company providing health and dental programs for post-secondary students. He was looking for a place to do the interview and some work before flying home which is where the idea for his start-up company Workspace Coworking comes from, plugging into the latest trend. 

With so many people working from home or, like Paches, on the road, it can be hard to find a place once or twice a week or month, to get out of the house and work or those times between the hotel checkout and airport check-in. The app he’s working on with friends will allow users to pay a flat monthly fee and rent a table in a restaurant or café without feeling guilty. 

“We repurpose underutilized restaurants and cafes into working space for remote professionals and then the restaurant gets to share in the revenue of those individuals and individuals get a flexible workspace,” he said. “Right now, as an example, I'm trying to find somewhere to work, but I'm just going to café hop and hope I can find a table, whereas if this service existed, I’d hop on my phone, look, ‘OK, that cafe has a table,’ book them and I go and work and I wouldn't waste time driving around North Saanich.” 

And while all those things sound impressive – his upbringing, his student, and professional careers – it was in large part his volunteer role as president of Edmonton's Oliver Community League which garnered him a spot on the Edmonton lifestyle magazine’s Top 40 list.

“Frank Oliver was so blatantly racist and hateful towards other human beings that, to me, it just wouldn't make sense that in creating a welcoming community we would honour him,” he said.

Community leagues are unique to Edmonton, other cities have various forms of them, but their primary function is to build, advocate for the community and support marginalized groups, Paches explained. 

"Some communities in Edmonton, for example, in the suburbs may be less populated so may have 500 to 1,000 members in it ... A lot of the suburban leagues will also run the local soccer programs and other sports-related programming,” he said. “Our league does things a little differently because Oliver actually has a population of just under 20,000 people.” 

And even before Canada turned 150 in 2017 the league was considering changing its moniker knowing it was named after a man who was blatantly racist and worked hard as a Member of Parliament to disenfranchise many races, especially Indigenous peoples. 

“Frank Oliver was the first MP for the area (and) founded the Edmonton Bulletin and he did a lot of work in the national park system,” said Paches. “However, he was instrumental in displacing most of the Indigenous peoples from the Edmonton surrounding area and he did so through dishonest agreements ... and then he often would benefit from getting the land after those agreements weren’t honoured.” 

While an MP, Oliver was Minister of the Interior and worked on immigration policy where he was responsible for shifting Canada from being open to a narrow focus to create “the ideal British white” as he was quoted. 

“My primary role as president isn't necessarily to make that decision (on a new name), it's to make sure we're doing the correct process and asking the right questions, so people who need to be involved are involved,” said Paches. “There are still Indigenous people whose families and nations who were disenfranchised by his actions. To this day, they're still hurt by it because of the fact their nation isn't even recognized because of his actions and I want to prioritize listening to those who were hurt.” 

Paches himself is aware his ancestral make-up would have both been pleasing and loathsome to Oliver. 

“(I’m) Irish, Scottish and Hungarian,” he said. “He would have hated me because I’m Hungarian.” 

He estimates it will take a up to a year before the name will be changed; it’s not an uncommon process, but there must be a lot of consultation with the community, and for the City of Edmonton, which recently renamed its electoral wards with Indigenous words, it’s another step in the quest for truth and reconciliation. 

“We haven't had any organized opposition, but we have some people say, ‘Oh, it's just a name, why are you spending so much time on it?’ and to them I say, ‘Exactly, it's just a name. So, your life will not change if it changes to a different name however, these folks were hurt, they continue to be hurt and it will impact theirs in a positive way if it changes,’” said Paches. “So respectfully, I'll listen to the folks who are being hurt before those where it doesn't impact.” 

Heather Stocking

About the Author: Heather Stocking

Heather Stocking a reporter at the Athabasca Advocate, a weekly paper in Northern Alberta. Heather covers all aspects of the news in and around Athabasca and Boyle as well as other small communities.
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