Whitehorse shelter operator needs review, Yukon MLAs decide in unanimous vote

Inside the Yukon Legislative Assembly in Whitehorse. On Wednesday, MLAs voted unanimously in favour of an NDP motion to urge the government to review all programs run in the territory by the Connective Support Society. (Chris Windeyer/CBC)

Motion in legislature follows last month’s coroner’s inquest into 4 deaths at emergency shelter

Yukon MLAs are questioning whether the Connective Support Society, which operates Whitehorse’s emergency shelter, is fit to run any health and social programs in the territory.

On Wednesday, MLAs voted unanimously in favour of an opposition motion urging the government to review all programs run by Connective in the territory.

The B.C.-based non-profit is currently managing four programs in the Yukon, including the shelter, the Supervised Housing and Reintegration Program (SHARP) for people leaving jail, and Housing First, which provides housing to adults who are experiencing or are at risk of homelessness. It also operates a program supporting people navigating the criminal justice system.

The vote in the legislature came soon after a three-week coroner’s inquest that looked into the deaths of four Indigenous women at the shelter between 2022 and 2023. The inquest highlighted a lack of policy and staff training to ensure the safety of shelter guests who may be intoxicated or using substances.

The inquest ended a week ago with the jury issuing eight recommendations that were also focused heavily on policy and training at the shelter. The most detailed recommendation is for Connective, which took over operating the facility in October 2022, to undertake a comprehensive policy review within the next six months.

The jury also recommended the Yukon government evaluate Connective’s progress in the months ahead.

MLA Annie Blake, a member of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation who tabled the NDP motion in the legislature this week, had harsh words for the non-profit.

“First Nations women are the backbone of our families, our communities, and of our society, and Connective’s leadership has treated them like they’re disposable,” Blake said in the legislature.

Blake also brought forward new allegations against Connective, in relation to SHARP.

“We hear from people, either former staff and participants, or people currently part of SHARP, who feel so unsafe due to substance use and dealing at SHARP that they consider trying to get back into the Whitehorse Correctional Centre just to feel safe,” Blake said.

‘First Nations women are the backbone of our families, our communities, and of our society, and Connective’s leadership has treated them like they’re disposable,’ said NDP MLA Annie Blake. (Chris Windeyer/CBC)

Social Services Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee responded to Blake’s allegations, saying they were news to her.

“I’m very concerned about the allegations… all of what is occurring with respect to the care and services we provide for Yukoners that are being provided… at this time, by Connective,” McPhee said.

Blake also said that people who have stayed at Connective’s Housing First facility in Whitehorse have complained about not having access to toilets, and not having locks on their doors. She also said that people have died at the facility, and those deaths should be investigated.

“This building is monitored 24/7, which makes these deaths highly alarming,” Blake said in the legislature.

“Any death at all is extremely concerning, yet the fact that we have very little information about what happens internally or within Connective’s processes or policies in the aftermath of a death, is equally concerning.”

Connective’s spokesperson said in an email to CBC on Thursday that the organization is reviewing the allegations “after receiving this information yesterday.”

“We haven’t had the opportunity to connect with our funder [the Yukon government] yet. We can confirm that we will undertake a full investigation within the program and will work with authorities as necessary.

“We were already in discussions with our funders and partners around doing reviews of our Housing First and SHARP programs this year, independent of the inquest or the motion in the legislature,” the email reads.

The Housing First facility in Whitehorse in 2020, before it opened. The facility is now run by Connective. (Chris Windeyer/CBC)

Premier Ranj Pillai said on Thursday that he supported Blake’s motion to review Connective’s programs.

“It’s really important that we do this fast,” he told reporters at the last day of the Legislative Assembly’s spring sitting.

Pillai says his government will also be looking at its agreement with Connective to operate the emergency shelter, up for renewal this fall.

NDP Leader Kate White said on Thursday she would be in favour of someone else taking over all the local programs from Connective.

“Do I think we have the expertise here? … Absolutely I do,” she said.

“This is reconciliation on a Yukon scale, with a capital R.”

Connective employees say review is overdue

Two Connective employees told CBC News a review of Connective’s protocols and services at the emergency shelter is long overdue. CBC has agree to protect the two employees’ identities because they fear they’d lose their jobs.

“I believe it would be better to be back in the hands of the government of Yukon,” the first employee said, about whether Connective is fit to run the shelter.

“It’s more localized. I like to believe people making decisions within [the department of] Health and Social Services here are … taking this to heart, realizing that [shelter clients] are our neighbours, friends, and family — and not just people in Vancouver that have never been up here before … trying to run it through a computer.”

Both employees decried the fact that it took a “very traumatizing” coroner’s inquest to bring forward recommendations that they have been pushing for. Both also said they haven’t felt any sense of urgency from Connective to improve services at the shelter following the coroner’s inquest.

“Why was an inquest, and the level of re-traumatizing … why was any of this necessary when these are things we should have been doing from day one?” the second employee asked. They said many of the inquest jury’s recommendations are “obvious,” and that many problems have been unacknowledged “for years.”

“I pushed forward half of those already, and it doesn’t go anywhere … it’s been years that these things could have been addressed. It’s been known that we have gaps, staff have expressed lack of support,” the second employee said.

“There’s has been a consistent lack of vision, drive, to meet the needs of this community.”

A spokesperson for Connective said it simply needs more time.

“Given that the inquest only ended a week ago, and that this motion passed only yesterday, we need more time to ensure we are taking measured and thorough action, together with our funders and partners,” the spokesperson said.

-With files from Virginie Ann and Meribeth Deen

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Nunavik, Nunavut and Ottawa to get shelters for Inuit women, Eye on the Arctic

United States: Craft space aims to teach Alaska Indigenous women skills — and help beat addiction, Alaska Public Media

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