A protest at the Mission Friendship Centre (MFC) by two banned members last week erupted in verbal disputes that drew the attention of the police.
Jason Jenkins and Kristopher Eriksen staged protests Monday, Wednesday and Friday outside the First Avenue friendship centre.
The pair say the centre is offering fewer services and that dissenters are being banned. The Record has spoken to several others who feel the same way but who wished to remain anonymous.
The friendship centre – which is partially funded by the Canadian government – hosts cultural programs, offers a daily hot meal during the week, and provides addiction counselling.
The pair were confronted by supporters of the centre last Friday in a verbal dispute that caused Mounties to intervene, Eriksen said. Although no one was charged, the episode caused the pair to back off plans to stage further protests this week.
Eriksen said he was banned in late 2012 after requesting the British Columbia Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres – which oversees 25 such centres around the province – to investigate the Mission centre. He alleged nepotistic hiring practices for paid positions and said the number of services offered by the centre have decreased in recent years.
“This form of behaviour is considered contrary to this society’s bylaws and according to our constitution, places you as member not in good standing … the board of directors has determined your actions to be serious in nature and warranted a lifetime ban from Mission Friendship Centre Society,” read a letter from then-president Tom Blackbird.
Jenkins, who operated a hot dog stand outside the centre and was the kitchen assistant, says he was banned for socializing with other banned members and for having a relationship with another client.
Jenkins was fired at the centre’s annual general meeting in June. He says he was told by executive director Grace Cunningham that his firing was a board decision. But in a letter to Jenkins, Blackbird, whose successor was chosen at the AGM, wrote that while there had been discussion about Jenkins taking an educational leave and returning to his position, he did not recall any board discussion about Jenkins’s termination. He said though that “staffing is the responsibility of the executive director, who usually informs the board of significant activities warranting a change in staff, or disciplinary actions.”
Several people have complained about the centre to the British Columbia Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres (BCAAFC) which governs all such centres in the province, BCAAFC executive director Paul Lacerte said it is not uncommon for the organization to field complaints about friendship centres. Once the BCAAFC receives a complaint, Lacerte says it then works directly with the individual friendship centre to address any issues raised.
Lacerte said friendship centres should not be banning members or prohibiting them from entering a centre except to protect the safety of employees and other members.
“One of the fundamental rules of being a friendship centre is … you are required to have an open-door policy, which means your door is open to everyone who is in need,” Lacerte said.
Preventing violence or “various forms of aggression” is the only reason a person could be denied entry, he said.
Lacerte said the organization has been working with the Mission centre, and that the BCAAFC had sent members to participate in its recent annual general meeting.
He said the BCAAFC takes its role as an overseer of friendship centres seriously, particularly because it contributes a significant amount of funding to individual centres.
“The accountability side is pretty critical for us,” he said.
It’s up to the centre, he said, to let members know it is working with the BCAAFC.
Lacerte said that although family members are not prohibited from working at the same friendship centre, they should not report directly to each other.
Jenkins has since started a petition calling for a special meeting to discuss the ongoing governance of the MFC. He said a recent annual general meeting at which a board of directors was elected received little notice and was closed to banned members.
Jenkins has more than 80 signatures on his petition. But he said Cunningham told him the petition “wasn’t valid.” Jenkins says some of those who signed the document asked to remove their names after being contacted by MFC staff.
Jenkins said a special meeting would serve “to give the members that utilize the friendship centre to have a voice to be heard.”
Membership in the centre costs $1.
Eriksen has complained to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, which last July said it decided “to conduct a recipient audit of the centre” during the fiscal year. Six months later, this January, Eriksen received another letter informing him that it had decided not to conduct the audit.
It had been concluded that the ministry didn’t have the authority to investigate the “day-to-day management of individual friendship centres.”
Eriksen also complained to Abbotsford MP Ed Fast, who said it would be inappropriate to become “politically involved” and that the BCAAFC should handle the complaints.
According to Canada Revenue Agency, the MFC has active charity status, and in 2013, showed $601,909 in revenue, with $554,493 in expenditures. A total of $321,076 was spent on employee compensation. According to the documents, there are eight employees paid between $10 and $39,999 and two paid between $40,000 and $79,999.
The centre’s executive director, Grace Cunningham, did not return calls or emails sent by The Record this week. In an interview earlier this summer, she said Eriksen did not discuss his concerns with the centre’s staff or board of directors.
Cunningham said Eriksen’s banning complied with rules and that allegations that family members were being favoured were “off the wall.”
“We have internal policies that we hire the best person for the position,” Cunningham said, noting she was removed from the hiring decision when her son applied for a position.