Opinion

It was wildly inappropriate for the Yukon gov't to get in bed with the Salvation Army

Given the fraught relationship between Christian organizations and Indigenous people, Lori Fox says the Yukon government never should have contracted the Salvation Army to run a homeless shelter.

Lori Fox says gov't never should have contracted the Christian organization to run homeless shelter

The Salvation Army Centre of Hope shelter opened in Whitehorse in October 2017. Given the fraught relationship between Christian organizations and Indigenous people, Lori Fox says the Yukon government never should have contracted the Salvation Army to run a homeless shelter. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

We may not like to acknowledge it — or talk about it — but we have a problem with homelessness in Whitehorse.

The territorial government's decision to fund the Salvation Army's Centre of Hope was supposed to alleviate some of the issues around homelessness, but it was wildly inappropriate to have the Christian organization take on this role in the first place.

A recent point-in-time survey on homelessness in the city last year found around 200 people in our community — 0.8 per cent of the population — were homeless or conditionally housed, and it's possible those numbers are even higher. The survey also found 82 per cent of the homeless population was Indigenous and 73 per cent were originally from a community outside of Whitehorse.

In a deal struck by the previous Yukon Party government before the last election, the Salvation Army was given $13.4 milion in public funds to build the new facility, which has emergency shelter beds and transitional housing apartments.

We had heard of people being locked out or denied access to the building.- Chief Doris Bill

The program and service delivery agreement, including a $1.2 million a year operating budget, was implemented by the present Liberal government.

In December 2018 — less than a year after the facility opened — the Liberals announced they were pulling that contract, and the facility, and assuming control of services starting Jan. 31.

It cited a failure on the Salvation Army's part to provide those contracted (and necessary) services.

Complicated history with First Nations

Regardless of its long history of service to the community, the Salvation Army is not a public social institution, but rather a religious one that's primary mission is to "share the love of Jesus Christ."

This is its core mandate, a fact that has put it into conflict with other minority groups in the past, including the queer community.

"I don't think [the Salvation Army] was the best direction for our community," says Doris Bill, chief of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation.

'I don’t think [the Salvation Army] was the best direction for our community,' says Doris Bill, chief of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation, in this file photo. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Bill says many vulnerable First Nations community members have "severe" trauma from the residential school system, which makes a Christian-based organization like the Salvation Army inappropriate for them.

She says the First Nation "pleaded with the previous government" not to grant the control of services to the Salvation Army, but they did it anyway.

So why would the previous government opt for this organization against the wishes of some First Nations people, whom it had to be aware it would primarily serve?

"It was an election goody," says Bill. "[The previous government] wanted to get re-elected."

Bill says the Kwanlin Dun First Nation tried to work with the Salvation Army to provide "culturally meaningful" programing but it was "really obvious to us that they weren't capable of delivering that."

When the First Nation asked the Salvation Army to nix the faith-based aspects of its programing, it refused, says Bill. This led to some community members being reluctant to use the services, as the Christian aspects were "triggering."

Reports of people turned away

Moreover, there are serious reports about the refusal of services to intoxicated persons. Many of the city's homeless have substance abuse issues — 29 per cent surveyed said they had lost their housing because of this — which we know goes hand-in-hand with trauma.

"Not everyone was welcome at the Salvation Army," Bill says.

For her, the matter is about more than politics; she had two brothers die on the street, one on the steps of the old Salvation Army building.

In a climate where unsheltered people can freeze to death eight months of the year, reluctance to access services — or being refused services due to intoxication or mental health issues — can be a matter of life and death.

"We had heard of people being locked out or denied access to the building," says Bill.

"We see a lot of deaths in our community of people on our streets … I see it every day."

Salvation Army staff simply "don't have the skills or training" to handle these complex issues, she said.

Executive director of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition Kristina Craig also says there were concerns regarding services from the get-go.

That the government decided to pull out of the contract is "a real indication of whether or not the Salvation Army was able to provide those services or not," she says.

Yukon Health Minister and Environment Minister Pauline Frost. In an emailed statement, Frost said 'the decision to transfer services came after a year-long period where both parties recognized the services provided at the Centre were not meeting either of our hopes or expectations.' (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

'Not meeting hopes or expectations': minister

Bill said the Kwanlin Dun First Nation "100 per cent" supports the decision by Minister of Health and Social Services Pauline Frost — herself a member of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation — to pull the Salvation Army's contract. Bill called it a "bold" but necessary move.

Frost wasn't available for an interview. In an emailed statement, she said "the decision to transfer services came after a year-long period where both parties recognized the services provided at the Centre were not meeting either of our hopes or expectations."

The needs of Yukon's vulnerable citizens are complex. - Minister Pauline Frost

"The needs of Yukon's vulnerable citizens are complex. The challenges we face in addressing those complex needs are often rooted in historic, culturally-related trauma. We have a responsibility to meet our clients where they are, and serve the needs of the many, not the few," she said.

Regardless of who is responsible for services and programing in Whitehorse, it is clear that First Nations need to have more say in what and how those services are delivered.

To simply pass them off to settler governments — or, worse yet, Christian settler organizations with clear ulterior motives like the Salvation Army — is not only patronizing and culturally insensitive, but sets a dangerous precedent that can cost lives.  

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.