City, Atlohsa to discuss future of Indigenous-led winter shelter following fire

Following a Nov. 7 blaze at the proposed site, Atlohsa Family Healing Services will be discussing the fate of its Indigenous-led winter shelter project with the city this afternoon.

Clubhouse at proposed site damaged in "suspicious" fire on Nov. 7

London Police were on the scene at River Road Golf Course on Nov. 7. (James Chaarani/CBC)

Atlohsa Family Healing Services will be discussing the fate of its Indigenous-led winter shelter project with the city this afternoon, following a fire at the proposed site for the program.

City council still needed to give the go-ahead for the project, however, River Road Golf Course was optioned to accommodate 30 Indigenous people experiencing homelessness in trailers already set up on the grounds. 

The fire at the city-owned course led to about $1 million in damages to its clubhouse, which was to serve as the hub for the shelter. The plan included meals to be prepared on-site, as well as access to laundry facilities, toilets and showers for residents, a common space for activities and programs and offices for their staff. 

Atlohsa has declined to comment until after today's meeting, however a city spokesperson said, "The team is still evaluating and considering different options with Atlohsa and others."

Anti-Indigenous discrimination? 

A spokesperson for London Police said the fire is suspicious, a sentiment shared by Ward 2 Coun. Shawn Lewis on Tuesday. 

"It's hard for me not feel suspicious about it and to not make some leaps of logic based on, frankly, some of the correspondence that I received from some Londoners, that was -- well, there's no nice way to put it -- it was rather racist and/or ignorant about the realities of both Indigenous people and homeless people." 

"So, when I hear that kind of feedback via emails or social media messages or whatever, and then you make a decision and this occurs just days later, it's very hard to not see one plus one plus one equalling three," he told CBC News.

In a press release, Atlohsa's executive director linked this incident to "anti-Indigenous discrimination" in the city. 

They've asked the community for help in finding a new, safe site. 

London's fire marshal is assisting the police investigation into the cause of the fire. (Angela McInnes/CBC)

There are several homes directly east of the golf course, and some residents have opposed or questioned the shelter, citing unfounded concerns about drug use or a lack of infrastructure to support a project like this.   

"I think that the root cause of the fire, nobody understands what happened there," said Seumas Wilson, who helps run Remembrance Gardens, a community memorial nearby. "I think there's a lot of finger pointing going on without a lot of facts."

There is uneasiness among some neighbours following the incident, and one resident said they were concerned about the security of their home in light of a possible arson attack. 

"I think that it's a shame that this has happened," said Wilson. "I think it sends a very negative message to that community, especially with everything else that's coming out right now about the residential schools and that type of thing." 

"So, it's hard to be in the middle of that," he said. "I have a lot of empathy for that community, but I also understand the neighborhood and the fears that are going on here."

In light of the incident, Atlohsa has said they're "feeling a little bit unsafe that this was suspicious."