'An act of violence': Indigenous group responds to arson charges against city employee
Atlohsa Family Healing Services calls fire at planned shelter 'a clear and intentional act'
The head of a London-based non-profit Indigenous charity says a suspicious fire at the site of a proposed Indigenous-led homeless shelter is nothing less than an "act of violence."
"This just confirms what we'd felt at the very beginning," said Raymond Deleary, executive director of Atlohsa Family Healing Services, which was to operate the winter shelter at River Road Golf Course.
"This is a clear and intentional act of violence. We're coming off the heels of a couple of centuries of violence towards us purposely. This act was done to displace us from a space."
Deleary also reacted to news that Michael Peter Belanger, a City of London employee, faces an arson charge in connection with the Nov. 7 fire, which caused $1-million in damage at the golf course's clubhouse.
The clubhouse building was going to be used over the winter as part of an Indigenous-led homeless shelter slated to provide a safe space to sleep during the coldest months.
Belanger, 54, is a supervisor in the city's fleet services department. He also owns a home near the site of the fire. He has been suspended with pay and is due to appear in court on Feb. 7.
Deleary said news the fire may have been set deliberately is a significant setback in the process of reconciliation between local governments and First Nations groups.
"In the shadow of reconciliation and truth-finding this is very disheartening," said Deleary. "It is affirmed to us over and over again that although there is lip service to meeting and achieving the goals of reconciliation, the fact of the matter is there are people who ... have a very colonial mindset when it comes to Indigenous First Nations people."
As for finding a new space to locate this winter, Mayor Ed Holder said he's meeting with Atlohsa staff to find another location to set up the shelter. It's on the agenda for Tuesday's council meeting.
Deleary said the fire won't derail efforts to provide a safe space for Indigenous people who struggle with homeless, particularly as sub-zero overnight temperatures become the norm.
"We're optimistic that we're going to find a viable solution and that those who need help are going to receive it," he said.
Coun. Maureen Cassidy said it's crucial the city's actions in the wake of the arson charges continue to show support for London's Indigenous community as winter approaches.
"We can't let this one incident undermine our efforts," said Cassidy, who has called on the city to move forward with an Indigenous land acknowledgement at its meetings.
"We have to ensure there's an Indigenous-led site for a homeless response, we've identified the need for this," she said. "Our commitment to do that will indicate our intention to move forward with reconciliation."