Siloam Mission failing to allow for Indigenous cultural practices, spiritual care, former staff say

A Christian humanitarian organization is neglecting the spiritual and cultural care of the majority of the Indigenous people it serves, a past board member and former staff of the Winnipeg charity allege.

Siloam Mission isn’t providing adequate support for Indigenous spiritual practices such as smudging, drum ceremonies and sweat lodges, they say. 

The Winnipeg charitable organization, which provides support for the city’s homeless population, has been without a cultural care staff person since last August, and its spiritual care supervisor was terminated in October. Neither position has been filled since then.

CEO Jim Bell and the board of directors were formally made aware of concerns about the level of Siloam’s spiritual and cultural care, and Bell’s leadership, in November.

“Bell’s views on Indigenous spiritual care has created tension and undue moral questioning amongst staff,” several staff wrote in a letter to the board, which CBC has seen. “This misinformation goes against Human Rights codes and has fostered a toxic, hostile and divisive workplace.”

In addition, a group called Not My Siloam has now started a social media campaign to press the organization for changes “in order to better support Indigenous people experiencing homelessness.”

CBC made requests for an interview with Bell. The organization instead provided a written statement on Monday, saying it was “saddened” by the accusations.

“We are not a church or a house of worship. But we do help people — of all faiths and backgrounds — find a cultural or religious connection, if they so desire,” the statement said.

But one of the accusation against Siloam is that it is failing to meet the spirit or specific recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples or Winnipeg’s Indigenous Accord, to which Siloam is a signatory partner.

A letter to Siloam’s board last November says its CEO Jim Bell’s views on Indigenous spiritual care have ‘created tension and undue moral questioning amongst staff.’ (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Former staff members CBC spoke with cited Bell’s lack of engagement on Indigenous issues and commitments made several years ago but not kept among their reasons for leaving the organization.

Indigenous people make up as much as 75 to 80 per cent of the community to whom Siloam offers services and care. In recent years, its facilities have undergone massive expansion with millions of dollars of community and government support.

Siloam’s most recent financial report shows it raised just over $8 million from community donations and received over $1 million in government support in 2019-20.

CBC News spoke to several people who were involved with various services provided by Siloam.

Every person interviewed said repeatedly the front-line staff do incredible work under difficult circumstances, but there were problems at the top.

‘Another broken promise’: former supervisor

Kara Von Riesen was the supervisor of Siloam’s Exit Up program, but says she could no longer work under Bell and broken commitments made by the organization.

She resigned on Jan. 1, 2021.

“When settlers came to Canada, we signed treaties and made promises to Indigenous people that we would engage in a mutually respectful and equitable relationship with them. And we broke those promises,” Von Riesen said in an interview with CBC.

“So when Jim Bell signs on and makes more promises to Indigenous people and then doesn’t actually enact them or provide them in any meaningful way, that’s another broken promise.”

Von Riesen’s voice catches when she outlines how critical the right spiritual care can be at certain moments, such as when community members are potentially suicidal.

She says without an Indigenous staff member offering support programming, the organization is forced to refer its clients to other outlets.

“We used to have this position offered on site and it was much more readily accessible and available.,” Von Riesen said.

“It’s very hard to have to wait, especially if someone, let’s say, is experiencing suicidal ideation. The stakes are very high here.”

Former Siloam supervisor Kara Von Riesen says the organization’s staff want to deliver services that are culturally appropriate for the Indigenous population — but its CEO and the board do not. (Travis Golby/CBC )

Sierra Noble says she was compelled to leave her job in communications at Siloam after a year and a half. She says the organization was telling the public and donors one thing, but not living up to those promises.

“I just I couldn’t be a part of it anymore,” she said.

“I left because of Jim Bell and because of the board and their absolute disrespect of Indigenous peoples and what they have told the organization that they need,” and how that compares to what the organization is telling the public they do, said Noble.

She says there are multiple examples of that, but recalls a sleep-out event in the fall of 2019 for corporate executives, where she says Bell expressed concern a smudging ceremony would make some donors uncomfortable, and said it made him personally uncomfortable.

The ceremony did not happen, Noble says — one of many Indigenous spiritual practices she says aren’t allowed at Siloam.

“It’s wrong to withhold spiritual and cultural needs of people … because you hold power,” she said.

“And it’s even more wrong to accept funding under the guise of offering … cultural and traditional spiritual programming for Indigenous people, when you are actively cancelling those programs.”

Clash with Christian values: former board member

Robin MacKenzie resigned as a member of Siloam’s board a year ago.

She told CBC News she loves Siloam and the good work that it does, but in her experience it “does not support Indigenous constituents to transition from homelessness, despite funding and [the] expectation that they do so.” 

MacKenzie says Bell and the Siloam’s board have resisted any efforts to provide spiritual care to the majority of community it serves.

“Colonialism continues at Siloam through exercising power and privilege to protect Siloam’s Christian identity, at the expense of best practice in serving those whose culture and spirituality have been stripped from them,” MacKenzie said in a written statement.

She lays the blame for many of those issues at Bell’s feet.

“It was clear to me that Jim Bell did not support reconciliation, saying he felt it was political, and he undermined efforts to that end,” MacKenzie said.

“Bell often stated that Siloam is not an Indigenous organization and said he could not support Indigenous cultural and spiritual practices that did not align with his Christian values.”

Spiritual support key: advocate

The president of End Homelessness Winnipeg wouldn’t comment on the accusations made against Bell or Siloam’s board.

However, Lucille Bruce said that generally speaking, “Indigenous people need to see themselves not just as clients. There needs to be visibility to provide the service … at the board, staffing and service levels.”

‘Over the years, we have at times facilitated Indigenous practices like smudging, sweat lodges and blanket exercises,’ Siloam said in a statement. (John Einarson/CBC)

Bruce says many homeless Indigenous people are products of the Sixties Scoop and the residential school system and it’s critical to give them access to elders, knowledge keepers and spiritual ceremonies.

“Solutions have to be Indigenous-led … by people with lived experience,” Bruce said.

The recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Winnipeg’s Indigenous Accord, Bruce believes, are cornerstones for organizations that wish to help people rise from living on the streets.

Cultural competency evaluation underway: Siloam

In its Monday statement, Siloam said it is “proud to be a Christian humanitarian organization that does not discriminate against any individuals or groups.”

“Our mandate is to provide emergency food, shelter, health care, employment training and housing for people who are homeless. That’s what we do,” the statement said.

“Over the years, we have at times facilitated Indigenous practices like smudging, sweat lodges and blanket exercises,” Siloam said.

The organization says it has “begun a cultural competency evaluation and consultation is currently underway with front-line staff and the men and women who use our services every day.”

It says that committee will soon be consulting with knowledge keepers, as well as Christian elders.

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