Twenty shelter case workers at the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre didn’t know why they were being asked to gather Monday morning at the shelter on North Park Street. “We got an email from one of the big wigs at the Friendship Centre,” says Brent Cosgrove, who has been a case worker since the shelter first opened in January. “She said that there is a mandatory staff meeting on Monday, December 13 at 10am.”
The meeting was so important, even workers who had just finished a late shift the night before had to be there. And the reason for the urgency quickly became clear, as the executives revealed that the shelter will close on December 31. They reportedly put the blame for the closure on a lack of funding and a lease that isn’t being renewed.
“Eighteen days prior to the closure date,” says Catherine Hubbard, another case worker at the shelter. All staff contracts expire at the end of the month, and the 40-bed shelter will close for what the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre calls a “restructuring” for approximately two months.
Hubbard says there were no inklings in advance that the shelter would not continue. “We had no idea.” As for the shelter residents themselves, they were never officially told. “I don’t know if they know,” she adds.
But Hubbard, Cosgrove and other case workers suspect the non-renewal of their employment contracts is related to recent unionization efforts.
“There was a lot happening with regards to safety of the case managers at the shelter, and we always knew [a union] would be a thing,” says Cosgrove. “It reached a level that we all decided that enough is enough, there’s things that we need in order to support the people that are staying at the shelter.”
“Conversations have been on and off for a couple of weeks, but we really only got our feet on the ground a week ago, December 7,” Hubbard says.
“Frankly I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” adds Cosgrove. “I think that when they found out we were unionizing, that’s when they decided to put their foot down.”
But the Friendship Centre technically isn’t firing anyone, contracts are just not being renewed at their set end date.
“It’s very complicated and the answer isn’t always straightforward,” says Ron Pizzo, a lawyer and partner at the Halifax law firm Pink Larkin. “But typically speaking, if an employer is showing anti-union animus, and they’re only doing this because of the union and you can prove a bunch of things, then you could file an unfair labour practice.”
A person with knowledge of the unionization efforts at the shelter says the union paperwork was officially filed before Monday's meeting, but only presented to MNFC management after the meeting. Workers are due to vote later this week on unionizing into the Services Employees International Union.
The Friendship Centre’s executive director, Pamela Glode Desrochers, says the closure of the shelter is tied to several factors, namely the state of the building itself, lack of cultural support and lack of use by Indigenous community members. An internal memo circulated on Dec 13 backs this up: While it mentions that the lease ends Dec 31, it also says “we are not actually achieving what we set out to achieve. The objective was to ensure we are offering a safe and secure place for urban Indigenous people.”
In an interview with The Coast, Glode Desrochers says ideally the revamp would entail 24/7 onsite elders, sweat lodge ceremonies and serving mainly Indigenous clients. “These cultural pieces need to be built in, so it’s not a one-off, it’s just a continuation of the program,” she says. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I’ve never had a project go off the rails like this.”
On a recent visit, the executive director says staff told her only 15 of the 40 beds were filled by Indigenous people. “We have to make sure that we’re providing what we need for our community,” says Glode Desrochers. “We have gone for generations without.”
But Hubbard says there’s no reason why the shelter couldn’t improve its offerings while remaining open. “I don’t think we were lacking anything,” she says. “But we could easily do two things at one time.”
The MNFC also has plans to open a new shelter on College Street, supported by the federal government’s Rapid Housing Initiative program. That project was announced in November 2020, with federal funding contingent on the shelter being open within one year, but construction has been delayed by COVID and construction supply chain issues.
“Initially the plan was for it to be open in January 2022, so next month,” says Cosgrove. “The last I heard it was due to be open in March 2022, and yesterday after some conversation it was pushed further still to the summer of 2022.”
Glode Desrochers agrees the Diamond Bailey building will now open in the summer, and says the time constraints of the Rapid Housing Initiative grant have been extended.
For the 40 clients the current shelter provides a bed to right now, if they’re lucky they’ll find a bed in another shelter. If not, they’ll be out on the streets January 1.
“Upwards of 40 people don’t have a place to go, the shelters are all full,” says Hubbard. “It’s January 1, it’s cold, they’re vulnerable and have an array of health concerns. That’s the main concern for us.”
In the meantime, the shelter workers will be doing everything they can to help their clients and convince the Friendship Centre to reverse its decision, including a rally this Friday at 12pm outside the shelter at 2029 North Park Street.
“There’s quite a bit that’s up in the air. In my opinion what’s been done, I do not think it just,” says Cosgrove. “And I can tell you that we’re going to be fighting tooth and nail for our clients, for the shelter and for our job security.”