Saskatoon

Saskatoon Tribal Council chief fires back at pastor after call to defund Fairhaven shelter

The Saskatoon Tribal Council's wellness centre is under the microscope once again. A local pastor wants it defunded due to crime and violence in neighbourhood.

Robert Pearce should 'open up his heart,' Chief Mark Arcand says after pastor calls centre 'colossal failure'

A man can be seen wearing a khaki jacket
Robert Pearce, the pastor at the Fairmont Baptist Church in Saskatoon, says the Saskatoon Tribal Council's Wellness Centre should be shut down 'until better solutions are created.' (CBC)

A Saskatoon pastor wants the province to defund and close a shelter he blames for an increase in crime and violence in his neighbourhood — prompting an accusation of racism and a "colonial mentality" from one First Nations leader.

Robert Pearce, a local pastor who has said he intends to run for the Ward 3 council seat in this November's civic election, says since the Saskatoon Tribal Council's Wellness Centre opened in the Fairhaven neighbourhood in December 2022, crime and violence have increased in the area.

Pearce, whose Fairmont Baptist Church is just a few hundred metres from the wellness centre, wrote an open letter to Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and several government ministers — which he also posted to social media — outlining his concerns about the centre, including "property damage, vandalism and thefts … costing us thousands of dollars."

His post on X (formerly Twitter) also described what he called "a harrowing experience," saying someone tried to jump him and get inside his church.

"I don't know that it's directly related to the shelter, to be honest, and I don't think I've ever stated that I believe it's directly related," Pearce told CBC in a Thursday interview.

"What I do know is since the shelter opened, man, our crime rates have gone through the roof."

He also said that homeowners in the area have seen their property values plummet by thousands of dollars since the shelter opened. 

"I'm not aware of any other community in any city … that's been required to take so much loss on themselves personally in order to accommodate this," he said. 

His letter outlines solutions he'd like to see, such as a long-term facility located at least two kilometres away from any residential community, social services to manage shelters, proper seasonal shelters, and a 30-person limit for shelters.

But his social media post says the current shelter, which he calls a "colossal failure," should be "defunded and closed until better solutions are created."

The 24/7, 106-bed emergency wellness centre, operated by the Saskatoon Tribal Council, has been the target of criticism before.

It relocated from the city's downtown to the Fairhaven neighbourhood, in southwest Saskatoon, in late 2022, offering supports for people struggling with homelessness and other challenges, like addictions. 

Last May, Ward 3 Coun. David Kirton said he has seen a negative impact in the neighbourhood from the centre, and called for a review of the wellness centre and its location.

At that point, Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief  Mark Arcand said he was "blindsided" by the councillor's criticism.

Arcand held a news conference on Thursday to once again defend the shelter.

A man wearing a green sweater can be seen standing with reporters all around him holding mikes and asking questions.
Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Mark Arcand held a news conference Thursday to defend operations at the 106-bed shelter in Fairhaven. (Thomas Simon/CBC)

"I'm disappointed in the pastor because of the church system that has caused all of our people to be where they're at today," he said, making reference to the residential school system, which was largely church-operated.

"It's 2024. This is a pastor. He's gotta learn to open up his heart and his house, which is the church, and help homeless people," said Arcand.

The tribal council has housed over 60 families since October, and moved another 40 to a secondary location where they've received income support and help with addictions and mental health issues, he said.

Paramedics come in to the wellness centre every day, he said, along with nurses who help treat chronic illnesses, case plan workers and medicine deliveries from a pharmacy.

The wellness centre also provides job support and transportation for kids to get to school, he said.

"It's always a target on our back to say we're not doing nothing in our city, which I think is wrong. It's disrespectful and we're a First Nations organization trying to help people," Arcand said. 

"I'm calling this out as racism, and I'm tired of the bullshit and I'm tired of the accusations, because this racism in this colonial mentality has to stop," he said. 

Last fall, Arcand acknowledged drug use and rule-breaking were problems at the centre, and said some people with complex needs would be evicted from the facility.

He said Thursday that since then, violence and other incidents have gone down.

The tribal council is currently in negotiations with the province to continue the $4.2 million yearly funding for the shelter, which runs out after March 31, Arcand said.

Pearce said he reached out to Arcand to ask how he can help get the community involved, but said he hasn't had a response.

"We wanna see the homeless get the help they really need, not an expensive Band-Aid that really isn't solving problems and at great expense, not only to the taxpayers but also to this community at large," Pearce said. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aishwarya Dudha is a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan based in Saskatoon. She has previously worked for Global News and the Times of India. She specializes in social justice issues and elevating voices of vulnerable people. She can be reached at aishwarya.dudha@cbc.ca

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