Thunder Bay

Dryden hotel faces racism accusation during Indigenous hockey tournament

The closure of a hotel swimming pool during an Indigenous hockey tournament in Dryden, Ont., has some people accusing the hotel of racism, but the co-owner of the Holiday Inn Express Dryden says what his hotel is really guilty of is poor communication. 

The hotel's co-owner says his business is guilty of poor communication

The co-owner of the Holiday Inn Express Dryden said the pool was closed during the Lil' Bands Tournament because somebody broke a glass in the pool area, and the hotel needed to bring in an out-of-town company to clean and sterilize it. Poor communication lead some to question that explanation, he acknowledged. (ihg.com)

The closure of a hotel swimming pool during an Indigenous hockey tournament in Dryden, Ont., has some people accusing the hotel of racism. But the co-owner of the Holiday Inn Express Dryden says what his hotel is really guilty of is poor communication. 

Hundreds of young players from northwestern Ontario First Nations were in the city for the Lil' Bands Tournament, which wrapped up Feb. 9.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox passed through town to cheer them on and noticed a sign on the door to the pool and fitness centre saying it was closed for renovations, he said. 

"So I had heard stories in the past where evacuees go to hotels [and] the pool's down, and [I'd heard] all these stories in Pikangikum and other communities, right? So it just made me think," he said.  "The parents started saying, 'That pool was open on Monday and Tuesday.'"  

He eventually asked a staff person about the closure after several parents asked him to inquire, he said.

At first, the staff person explained that someone had smashed a glass in the pool area, and it needed to be cleaned out.

'I think our people are treated differently'

However, when Fox pressed for details about the clean-up, he said she became defensive. 

Fox then asked to speak to a manager, he said, but the staff person refused to allow him to and told him that Health Canada had closed the pool down.

"As I asked these questions, she just started getting more and more mad at me,"  he said.

Fox replied that he was a lawyer and didn't believe Health Canada had jurisdiction over the swimming pool, he said.  He also asked why the sign on the pool said it was closed for renovations if it was actually closed for clean-up.

At that point, the staff person ended the conversation and walked away, he said. 

"No one likes that 'r' word ... the word 'racism,' you know?" he said, when asked how he interpreted the situation. 

"I think our people are treated differently."

Fox understands that hotels hosting tournaments are taking in large numbers of people, and he tries to be compassionate to the staff, he said.  But he noted that events such as Lil' Bands also bring a lot of money to businesses such as the hotel, and many people pay premium rates for rooms during such events.  

Hotel co-owner responds 

Businesses owe it to these customers to make an effort for them, he said. 

"I have a lot of non-native friends and hockey parents who said to me, 'Do you know what? If that was a non-native hockey team, they would've cleaned up that pool pretty quick.'" 

Reached Saturday afternoon at the hotel, Holiday Inn Express Dryden co-owner Dave McKay told CBC he apologizes to Fox for what he described as an incident of poor communication and said his hotel needs to do better.

The pool, he said, was closed due to broken glass, and a Winnipeg company had arrived Friday to drain it and sterilize it.  

"It's a young lady behind the desk, and we're not all technical," he said. "I wasn't here but obviously there was an issue in how it was relayed to Mr. Fox, and we very much are sorry for that, and we want to do better."

In future, the hotel will post clear information about the reasons for pool closures and the expected timelines for repair, he said.

Asked if he could understand how a person might interpret the closure as racially motivated if that person could not get clear answers from hotel staff about the reasons for it, McKay said "absolutely." 

"If you're getting different answers, absolutely, it sounds like there's a cover-up or something," he said. "But the fact is, the pool is closed for the health and safety of our guests."  

The hotel sponsored public swims at the public pool in Dryden on Friday and Saturday in an effort to make it up to guests who were hoping to swim, he said.  He is also providing discounted room rates on check-out to compensate guests for the lack of access to the hotel's pool.

When asked to respond to Fox's allegation that the hotel might've taken more prompt action for non-Indigenous guests rather than waiting until news of the incident spread on social media, McKay insisted his hotel was treating the teams just as they would any other guests. 

"We have an obligation to make sure that our guests feel welcome here and that we provide them with the best stay that we can," he said, "and that's what we're striving to do." 

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