The shelter space at 2029 North Park St in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The shelter space at 2029 North Park St in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Credit: Screengrab / Google Maps

Minutes after filing union papers, staff were laid off. Then on Friday, days after initially announcing its closure for “restructuring,” a Mi’kmaw organization in Nova Scotia walked away entirely from its 40-bed shelter space project meant to provide support to urban Indigenous people.

The move came as staff members of the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre were organizing to keep both their jobs and the shelter space – which provides a place for nearly ten per cent of Halifax’s homeless population – open.

Workers are speculating the closure is an effort to bust their efforts to unionize. In a press release issued Tuesday, staff at the shelter accused the executive director of retaliation for filing union papers.

“It is deeply disturbing that this decision was announced to us within an hour of us filing an application at the labour board to unionize,” Rosalie Hyslop said in the release.

“The shelter team of the MNFC’s emergency shelter had been discussing unionizing in recent months in order to protect the well-being of both staff and clients, and it is impossible for us to accept that this hasty decision to eliminate our jobs and close the shelter is not related to our decision to form a union,” Hyslop added.

The centre cited an expiring lease, the end of staff contracts and the end of provincial funding all coinciding on the last day of 2021.

The MNFC shelter opened in January 2021, offering 40 shelter beds with priority given to the area’s Indigenous population, who make up one in five people experiencing homelessness in Halifax.

The announcement leaves 40 area residents experiencing homelessness back on the streets as the ball drops into 2022.

A Friday morning statement to media co-signed by Pam Glode-Desrochers, executive director at the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre, characterized recent events as a “movement to suppress, isolate and marginalize our needs.”

“We have never experienced institutionalized racism inside our own walls like we have this week,” the statement read, giving no specific mention of staff efforts to unionize.

The statement goes on to accuse non-Indigenous staff of “posing as allies to opportunistically serve their own agendas,” and went so far as to say “desperate” prospective shelter residents are “claiming to be Indigenous when in fact they are not.”

Finally, the letter describes the organization’s own shelter staff as “self-interested factions aiming to benefit off of the most vulnerable people in our communities.”

“We have seen so-called allies move to shame us and even discredit the work we do,” the statement reads.

Accompanying the statement, which was sent to rabble.ca via email, was a note to media denouncing a planned Friday demonstration in support of staff and residents.

“Rallies, of any kind at this time of heightened COVID activity, are irresponsible and counter to the best interests of the general public, particularly the potential impact on the most vulnerable among us,” the note read.

The closure of the organization’s project comes nearly one year after Glode-Desrochers told me she was “thrilled to see the project moving forward 15 years after the organization’s first community plan.”

In an initial letter sent to shelter staff from Glode-Desrochers, she said “there have been staff concerns … that we are not actually achieving what we set out to achieve,” when it comes to “offering a safe and secure place for urban Indigenous peoples.”

Catherine Hubbard, who works as a shelter case manager at the MNFC location, says Glode-Desrochers’ assertion that staff are not fully committed to providing these services is false.

In an interview with rabble.ca, Hubbard alleged a toxic workplace relationship between shelter workers and Glode-Desrochers, the MNFC executive director.

According to Hubbard and Denise Smith, another shelter manager, Glode-Desrochers rarely visited the shelter on North Park St., despite her office being just four blocks away.

Glode-Desrochers did not respond to two interview requests from rabble.ca, but the organization did provide this comment via email: “With legal proceedings in-progress and active COVID exposures at MNFC facilities, comments from the MNFC Executive will be limited outside of [the previously issued media] statements.”

For Hubbard and Smith, Glode-Desrochers’ appearance at Monday’s termination meeting was the first time they had met the executive director.

“If somebody would have said ‘hey, can you show me a picture of this lady,’ I would not have been able to,” Hubbard admitted.

Both Hubbard and Smith say they have not encountered Glode-Desrochers at the shelter since either of them started working there. Smith started working at the shelter last January, when it first opened; Hubbard started in the spring.

The workers question Glode-Desrochers’ ability to characterize the environment if she was not present at the shelter.

“We have serious, fulsome components that are in place that she’s never seen in action because she’s been to the shelter one time since it opened,” Hubbard said, adding that any way Glode-Desrochers feels about the operation and service of the shelter is “based off no personal experience of being at the shelter.”

Smith infers Glode-Desrochers’ comments about a “colonized way” being imposed on the shelter as a reference to the union drive, and refutes the implication. She pointed out that the person who started the union drive, Sam Krawec, is a status Indigenous man.

Smith noted that staff have held two talking circles this year and Glode-Desrochers chose not to participate.

At the termination meeting, Hubbard says Glode-Desrochers told staff they could re-apply for their jobs when the shelter resumes operations, but gave no job guarantee to current employees.

When shelter staff reminded Glode-Desrochers that firing and hiring policies are frozen due to the union process beginning, Hubbard says the executive director refused to speak about the subject and subsequently left the meeting.

“There’s always room for improvement, that’s just facts,” Hubbard said. “But for [Glode-Desrochers] to say that we’re not providing adequate programming or that we’re not giving cultural support [or] that Indigenous folks don’t feel safe, it’s just not the experience of the staff nor the clients that we’ve spoken with.”

For Hubbard, there are many other shelter positions available in the city of Halifax, but none like the MFNC shelter.

“We’re such a person-first, trauma-informed, culturally-informed place that we’re really able to make a difference with them,” Hubbard said. “So rather than losing my livelihood, I was more upset about losing the connection.”

For Hubbard, receiving the news that she’d be losing her job in the middle of the holiday season is a slap in the face to shelter workers.

Hubbard noted that the MNFC shelter is the only one of its kind in the region. While staff aren’t disputing the fact that programming and resources could be improved upon, they believe they can walk and chew gum at the same time to make it happen.

Image: Gilad Cohen

Stephen Wentzell

Stephen Wentzell is rabble.ca‘s national politics reporter, a cat-dad to Benson, and a Real Housewives fanatic. Based in Halifax, he writes solutions-based, people-centred...