Mission Friendship Centre ‘in difficulty’

Provincial organization working with centre to resolve issues that sparked complaints

The Mission Friendship Centre

The Mission Friendship Centre (MFC) has been placed “in difficulty” by the provincial organization that oversees such centres following complaints from former volunteers and members.

In September, two banned members protested outside the centre and a petition was circulated calling for a special meeting to address concerns regarding management of the facility.

The Record reported that former volunteer Kristopher Eriksen said he was banned in late 2012 after requesting the British Columbia Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres (BCAAFC) – which oversees 25 such centres around the province – to investigate the Mission centre. He alleged unfair hiring practices and said the number of services offered by the centre had decreased. Earlier this month, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network’s APTN Investigates broadcast a documentary on the centre and the issues raised by members, including Eriksen.

The friendship centre – which is located on First Avenue and partially funded by the Canadian government – hosts cultural programs, offers a daily hot meal during the week, and provides addiction counselling.

MFC executive director Grace Cunningham confirmed this week that the MFC had been designated to be “in difficulty” by the BCAAFC. The designation requires MFC management to sign a document and pledge to work with BCAAFC to address some of the concerns.

A program review committee made up of other friendship centre staffers has also been struck to work with the MFC.

Cunningham said the centre has formed committees in four areas – public relations, finances, bylaws, and human resources – which include members and staff.

She said the centre is working “to address the challenges head-on as a means to build capacity.” The aim is to create stability and focus on the needs of the centre’s clients.

She said funding for youth arts and culture programs at the centre stopped with little notice this spring after the federal government overhauled the federal Cultural Connections for Aboriginal Youth (CCAY) initiative, which had provided money for the MFC programs.

The MFC program was one of around 100 across the country affected, she said.

“It has left a huge gap in service,” she said.

As for banning clients, Cunningham said four people are currently barred from the centre.

The MFC’s former president, Tom Blackbird, who did not speak to The Record in September, this week explained the reasoning behind Eriksen’s banning.

Blackbird said the board of directors feared the complaints made by Eriksen – who contacted several funding agencies – could jeopardize the centre’s funding and programming. That, Blackbird said, would put the clients at risk.

“There was a chance that if the funding had gotten pulled, it could have affected … several people that rely on what the programming is for.”

Blackbird served two terms on the centre’s board and did not run for re-election earlier this year. He said the organization does need fixing.

“I think we know that there’s definitely change needed,” he said. “Things are moving, but it’s a very slow process.”

Blackbird said the authority bestowed upon the executive director position should also be reconsidered.

However, Cunningham said her job is to act on policies enacted by the board of directors. She said the complaints have led her to go to the board and review the MFC’s policies. “Ultimately at the end of the day, it’s my responsibility to enforce those policies.”

“We have to kind of always take a step back and make sure the way we do it is effective and if the policies themselves are not effective we have to take a look at that.”

But she also said some complainants had to take a look at their own behaviour and should have engaged directly with MFC staff.

The Mission RCMP has also begun an investigation into  fraud at the centre, according to Sgt. Shaun Wright.

Cunningham said the centre had filed the complaint with the RCMP.

“We have initiated an investigation and it’s currently ongoing so we can’t release details at this point,” Wright told The Record. An arrest was made on Oct. 27, but no charges have yet been filed.

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