Lawsuit claims racism from an Alberta town made approved wellness centre impossible to realize
Correction: Attribution for quote para 7 changed to Millar from Carpenter.
Legal action initiated against the central Alberta town of Bashaw claims that “racial prejudice” made the approval of a wellness centre that would serve Maskwacis members impossible to be realized.
James Carpenter and Dr. Tony Mucciarone, partners in the Bashaw Retreat Centre Inc., filed their statement of claim in the Court of King’s Bench of Alberta Feb. 27 in Wetaskiwin.
The statement names current Bashaw Mayor Rob McDonald and both present and former councillors.
While Maskwacis is not part of the legal action, many conversations with the four First Nations that comprise Maskwacis occurred and they are supportive of the action being taken, says Phillip Millar, legal counsel for Carpenter and Mucciarone.
Carpenter and Mucciarone are asking for more than $4 million in compensation for economic losses after two years of being unable to fulfill the demands put before them by Bashaw council.
“This is a way to give voice to how this discrimination exists,” Millar told Windspeaker.com.
“The allegations are serious and it’s because, I think, the timing has never been better to actually stand up for what is right…Racism isn’t always in your face. We’re just in a situation where we actually have some evidence of people who are decision makers expressing prejudicial views about projects that’s given us the ability to finally try to shed some light on the way prejudice and racism can be implemented behind the cloak of politeness and protocol,” said Millar in a news conference held in Calgary.
The alleged discussions took place behind closed doors, "but everybody knows what happened here," Carpenter said.
Carpenter and Mucciarone were joined by Russel Burns, advocate and First Nations consultant on the project, and Elder Charlene Burns, advocate for women, mothers and families supporting the project.
“Words of such hate. This is what racism is. We don’t need that, and with a town of 800 and four churches…Something has to give there,” said Russel Burns.
“It saddens me. In fact, I get emotional to think the racism is so blatant in this day and age when we are supposed to live the diversity among people. And yet you see something like this,” said Charlene Burns.
In May 2021, Bashaw Retreat Centre decided to change the renovated seniors lodge with its 38 rooms into a residential care facility for First Nations. Acquiring the existing building was easier than accessing capital funding to build a new facility, said Carpenter.
The location was ideal, he added, with Bashaw’s proximity to the residents of Maskwacis and the facility being located on five acres on Treaty 6 territory.
Maskwacis members could go outside of their community to build relationships with their families at the facility, get the supports they needed, Carpenter said, and then return home stronger. Those supports would be provided and developed by First Nations.
“Bashaw was chosen because the First Nations found willing partners that would stand with them and walk the journey and navigate a non-Indigenous world that we’ve now learned is nothing short of a bunch of pitfalls and obstacles and disappointments,” said Carpenter.
According to the statement of claim, the development permit for a seniors centre had been approved by town council in 2017.
However, in May 2021, despite the residential care facility being defined in the same way as a seniors lodge by the land-use bylaw, council asked Bashaw Retreat Centre to apply for a new permit, which they did that same month. On June 8 that year, the application was deemed incomplete. A second application was submitted a month later and was also deemed incomplete. From that point forward to May 20, 2022, the applicants were continuously asked to provide more information. They responded each time but then eventually on Aug. 30 last year, the second application was reconsidered and denied due to yet more information being required.
Council, both past and present members, “treated the plaintiffs with hostility and never sought to meet or assist the plaintiffs or the Chiefs of the four Nations of Maskwacis, despite numerous requests,” reads the statement of claim.
Further, the statement says that town council did not approve the second application because they viewed the Maskwacis “as problematic”; that the “further presence of the Maskwacis would devalue residential property values”; and that members would “do ‘terrible things’ in the town.”
According to the legal action, town council has “engaged in a pattern of dealing amounting to civil conspiracy, defamation against the nearby First Nations group, public malfeasance, and/or fraudulent misrepresentations.”
None of these allegations have yet been tested in court.
Bashaw Retreat Centre lost business and opportunities and incurred various expenses approximating $2.5 million, they contend. As well, the value of the facility has deteriorated approximately $1.5 million.
As a remedy, Bashaw Retreat Centre is not asking for town council to apologize to Maskwacis.
Millar says it’s not his place to ask for action for Maskwacis. But he also adds that “people are tired of apologies.”
“We’ve had too many apologies and you know, for me, an apology isn’t going to cut it. We don’t need that. We need action. We need something that’s going to be different. We need to let people know…(that) this kind of blatant racism, this is where it ends. It’s really sad that we have to go through this route to address this,” said Charlene Burns. “There’s no choice other than this action.”
In response to Windspeaker.com, Theresa Fuller, chief administrative officer with Bashaw, said in an email, “The town has not been served, we have no comment at this time.”
By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com, Windspeaker.com