‘A wicked web of lies’: Alberta town under fire for rejecting wellness centre for Indigenous families

The town of Bashaw, Alta. is facing a $4 million lawsuit launched by Bashaw Retreat Centre Inc. against the mayor and past and current councilors, alleging they obstructed efforts to rent the facility out as a wellness centre for Indigenous families.

In a statement of claim filed in late February, Bashaw Retreat Centre Inc. plaintiffs James Carpenter and Dr. Tony Mucciarone – both non-Indigenous – claimed “misuse of power rooted in prejudice” that made the Bear Hills Family Wellness Centre project impossible.

The Town filed their statement of defense on April 13 saying “the town denies each and every allegation in the Plaintiff’s Statement of Claim unless otherwise stated,” and denies “this matter involves a misuse of power rooted in prejudice.”

Bashaw has not responded to Global News’ requests for comment. None of the claims have been proven in court.

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The lawsuit centers around a retreat centre the plaintiffs planned to rent to Maskwacis — made up of Ermineskin Cree Nation, Samson Cree Nation, Louis Bull Tribe and Montana First Nation — for use as a wellness centre for Indigenous families. Phillip Millar, legal council for Carpenter and Mucciarone, said while the four First Nations are not involved in the lawsuit, they’ve voiced support.

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In a statement read to town council on June 14, 2022 Louis Bull Coun. Wayne Moonias, said “our experience has been unpleasant to say the least, our messages have been deflected and met with indifference … (the building) has been approved by (Bashaw) for a senior’s lodge, event center, festival center, retreat center and various congregate living. We are no different than these types of uses.”

He went on to say repeated requests for information by the town council have “infringed on our sacred way and forced us to exploit our culture as though it were a simple, medical procedure of sorts.”

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Prior to the pandemic the facility was used as an event and wedding venue, but when COVID-19 shuttered everything, Maskwacis began talks with Carpenter and Mucciarone to see about using the facility as a family wellness centre.

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Carpenter and Mucciarone sought a letter of support from town council, which started a process of “bureaucratic hoop jumping” Carpenter told Global News.

They say the town’s CAO told them to submit an application  for a change of use — they didn’t understand why as the facility had been used for a variety of things in the past but submitted the application in May 2021 which triggered repeated requests for more information.

The town’s statement of defence reads “the change of use was required to comply with the Land Use Bylaw 780-2018.”

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At a council meeting a month later, the East Central Alberta Review reported that Carpenter expressed concern that the delays were because of  “the colour of one’s skin,” and “… if this wasn’t First Nations I don’t believe we would even be at this discussion right now.”

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They went back to the drawing board and did community consultation. “We did three open houses, three Facebook lives; we put a three page flyer in every mailbox in town and then we actually knocked on every single door,” Carpenter said.

A second application was submitted on Jan. 10, 2022 which was deemed incomplete and the town asked for more information eight times.

That application was deemed complete on May 3, 2022 but another request for more information was issued 17 days later.

“Bear Hill’s Family Wellness Centre was a 900 page document that was submitted. So in other words, the town council knew what the program was … 100 per cent, town council knew exactly what we were doing there,” said Carpenter at a press conference earlier this year.

The town’s statement of defence reads “The town denies that it forced the plaintiff to submit hundreds of pages of information. The town also denies that its requests for supporting documentation were definitively answered by the plaintiff.”

Eventually town council unanimously defeated the application on Aug. 30, 2022.

Bashaw Retreat Centre Inc. was an event and wedding venue before the pandemic hit. 5430 51A Street / realtor.ca

Application rejected

The town cited six reasons including that “the applicant has not provided a clear understanding of what is proposed to occur in the facility” and “the proposed location directly adjacent to the residential community and in close proximity to the local school would unduly impact the use and enjoyment of the adjacent properties.”

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Carpenter believes the community soured on the idea because the word “rehabilitation” was used in the first application and they assumed it was for an addictions facility.

“We (originally) called it Young Spirit Winds because that was one of the programs (Maskwacis) had, and it was the same team that wanted to do a family wellness centre,” he said. Young Spirit Winds is a day treatment program.

“Their belief was if they had a family wellness centre, they could prevent the (need for) Young Spirit Winds, get in front of it and work with families.”

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At a press conference earlier this year Carpenter tried to clarify use of the word “rehab.”

“Never, ever, ever, ever were intoxicated individuals coming here or people on drugs or anything,” he said. “These were people that wanted to come together and reconnect with their heritage and their culture, their spiritual, their elders, their family lives to build and grow and to help their children and nurture their families.”

When Moonias attended a town council meeting last year, he tried to clarify as well, saying in his statement “the Western terms have become a way to make ‘treatment’ or ‘rehabilitation’ words of disgrace, have a negative impact and form judgment to look down upon those with addiction issues or in need of mental health help.”

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He pointed out Maskwacis already had addictions services and the proposed facility would be “for overall wellness and to be a culturally based program for families to improve wellness.”

But it went nowhere.

“It’s a wicked web of lies, roadblocks and everything else,” Carpenter said.

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‘Prejudice and discrimination’

The statement of claim alleges “when the Bashaw town council learned of the plaintiff’s intent to involve First Nations clientele, the defendants actively sought to obstruct the business venture and engaged in a pattern of dealing, based on prejudice and discrimination to prevent the use of the facility by Indigenous clientele.”

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The lawsuit names current Bashaw mayor and both present and former councilors.

One of the former councilors named is Lynn Schultz, who according to local media reports, during a council meeting rejected the idea of adopting a land acknowledgement saying “I don’t really care what people think if I’m racist. I’m not … I don’t think recognizing that this was once Aboriginal ground is a way to move forward.”

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In that same council meeting, local media quoted former Bashaw deputy mayor Rosella Peterman defending residential schools saying “We have a number of friends who went to residential schools who said those were the happiest years of their lives,” she continued. “(Indigenous people) weren’t ripped from their families in this case. They were large families that couldn’t look after their children … we get fed one picture all of the time and that isn’t the only picture.”

Carpenter and Mucciarone have given up on the plans for Bear Hills Family Wellness Centre and the property is currently listed for sale priced at $1.35 million.

A town divided

Bashaw resident Jan Wells said she was disappointed to see the project not move forward.

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“It would have put Bashaw on the map for a good reason rather than where it is sitting now for a bad reason,” she said. “A lot of the people in town, they only heard what they wanted to hear … they had these preconceived notions.”

Wells believes the majority of Bashaw’s 800 residents are glad the project didn’t go through, “its a very cliquey town, you either fit in or you don’t and to bring in a centre like this, would be on the wrong spectrum for most folks … ‘you’re not going to bring those people in to our town,’ you know?’”

She runs a home-based business and said after making supportive comments on social media, was called into a store that sells her products and asked to remove them.

“That’s just how things are in town now,” she said.

A letter to the editor posted in the East Central Alberta Review, by resident Margaret Baier said “I have lived in or around Bashaw for 43 years and found this community welcoming, caring and tolerant … media coverage emphasizes this situation as a racial issue but I do not believe that is at all true.”

“How unfortunate that Bashaw has been painted as prejudicial and discriminatory when actually we are not.”

On a public Facebook post about the lawsuit, a resident said “I’m all for supporting mental health and supporting others to get better but not at the risk of our youth. Find another building, our town council made the right call.”

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In an interview with Global News, Bashaw Retreat Centre Inc.’s lawyer said “I think a lot of their defence is saying they just had discretion … OK discretion of what?”

Adding, “we’re going to move as soon as possible to book questioning, hopefully we can get our documents together and get something moving within three months. I know the citizens want something and communities want something.”

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