A review of BC Housing facility in Smithers has found no link between the supported living facility’s cultural safety practices and the deaths of six Indigenous men.
The deaths occurred at Goodacre Place, a supportive housing facility in Smithers with 22 single units where residents pay $375 a month for shelter, meals and support services. Goodacre Place is the only supportive housing facility for people between Terrace and Prince George.
The report, commissioned by BC Housing and supported by the Aboriginal Housing Management Association (AHMA), indicates two independent consultants were asked to determine if the Smithers Community Services Association (SCSA) was fulfilling the terms of its agreement with BC Housing.
“During the course of the review the consultants did not, however, observe any direct linkages between the cultural safety practices employed at Goodacre Place and the deaths, and therefore could not substantiate any of the allegations,” the report stated.
The allegations referred to in the report came out of an April 22, 2021, joint press release from the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre (DLKF) and B.C. Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres demanding an inquiry and suggesting the deaths were linked to “Smithers’ lack of culturally safe housing programs for Indigenous people.”
Although the review was initiated in response to those allegations it was not an investigation into the deaths.
All six men died within approximately 12 months of each other between the spring of 2020 and April 2021. For most, the causes of death were never released. The exception was Arthur Tom, who died in hospital following a freak accident in which he fell down a set of stairs at Goodacre Place.
Cathryn Olmstead, executive director of SCSA, did not want to talk about individual cases, but did say most were the kinds of deaths facilities that cater to vulnerable clients tend to see.
The report acknowledges Goodacre Place’s efforts to provide culturally safe services “despite the lack of specific direction from BC Housing in the operator agreement and a lack of cultural safety definitions or standards within the housing sector.”
“The review found that SCSA is making efforts to create cultural safety at Goodacre Place and that the organization is committed to further improvements,” said a press release that accompanied publication of the report. “The review also highlighted the ongoing impacts of systemic racism and colonization on Indigenous peoples’ health and well-being.”
Some of the key recommendations from the report to the SCSA were to continue building on existing relationships with Indigenous groups and other service providers, to become more transparent with their policies and reporting practices and to expand onsite healthcare services in collaboration with Northern Health.
Olmstead said in a statement in May 2021 that her organization and the staff at Goodacre Place had been devastated by the deaths and subsequent allegations and welcomed an independent review of their programs and services “because it will bring out the truth.”
In a release dated Feb. 15, the same day BC Housing released its final report, Olmstead said the review did just that.
“The findings from the recent review of Goodacre Place Supported Housing in Smithers, confirms the staff at Goodacre Place are leaders when it comes to cultural safety practices, and recognizes that staff consistently go above-and-beyond the program mandate to address the unique needs of each participant,” she wrote.
Nevertheless, although the SCSA accepts the recommendations that came out of the review, saying “there is always room for improvement,” the organization is not happy with the report overall.
Olmstead said that while the report completely vindicates the SCSA and its staff and Goodacre Place and its staff, it does not state that explicitly enough and continues to cast a pall on the organization’s reputation.
The SCSA board of directors had an opportunity to review a draft of the report prior to publication of the final version and sent a seven-page response asking for what it saw as deficiencies to be addressed.
Olmstead told Black Press Media that none of those expectations were met by the final report.
“Rather, they toned down some of the rhetoric in the first report, though I feel it continues to subtly imply we are responsible for the limitations of the health care system, and the racism experienced in the community.
“To be honest, I don’t think it exonerates us firmly or clearly enough.”
While respondents to the review gave Goodacre Place an overall positive rating, they did not view Smithers itself nearly so favourably.
“The reviewers also heard about many experiences of local anti-Indigenous racism,” the report states. “There is agreement from most interview respondents that Smithers is not an Indigenous-friendly community.”
Margaret Pfoh, AHMA CEO and a member of the Gitga’at First Nation, said there is a much bigger picture to consider.
“This report for me, and the process, is so much more than about exoneration or finger-pointing,” she told Black Press Media. “But really about decolonizing systems in Canada, and in particular housing and support systems where Indigenous peoples… represent the majority that are being served.
“And so, I think that this report really demonstrated a good process and a path forward to ensure that where Indigenous communities are impacted, Indigenous-led organizations have a seat at the table to ensure that level of transparency, cultural safety and inclusion.”
BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay acknowledged SCSA has done “a really good job” of managing Goodacre, particularly during the most difficult of times, but, like Pfoh, wanted to focus on where improvements could be made.
“[SCSA is] a strong partner, and we want to work with them… to implement the recommendations to make them even stronger,” he said. “And you’re quite right, the report did recognize their current practices, but also… made some recommendations around where the improvements could be made.”
Furthermore, Ramsay said BC Housing wants to use the learnings from the report to improve its services across the province.
“I think it really is a reflection of a commitment to truth and reconciliation, the truth part being facing the issues, recognizing them and having those difficult conversations,” he saåid. “But then, the real positive piece is the reconciliation piece and the parties coming together with a great set of recommendations to improve on cultural safety practices, not only at Goodacre Place, but because of AHMA’s provincial role, is how we can translate those learnings for BC Housing into all of our housing providers because we know indigenous people are so overrepresented in every housing need category.”
The full report can be found on the BC Housing website.
The other major problem SCSA had with the report is it did not address their concerns about a perceived conflict of interest with Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre executive director Annette Morgan, who brought the initial allegations and was a member of the AHMA board at the time.
Pfoh dismissed there was ever a conflict of interest.
“Once the story broke, Annette declared her conflict of interest and didn’t participate in any more board discussions on this matter,” she said. “And shortly after, she resigned from the board due to the direct conflict of interest in this matter, and a perceived conflict of interest related to a separate matter.”
The Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre has not yet responded to the report, but Morgan said they would be doing so.