Another former resident of the Raising Hope Moving Families Forward housing program has filed a complaint with the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission.
“The times where I was closest to relapsing during my entire recovery were times that I spent in that building,” Fay Munro told Global News.
“And it was directly affiliated to conversations or arguments I was getting involved in with the staff and it should have been the complete opposite. I wish something would have been done for me at the time, so I’m doing this so nobody else has to go through it.”
Munro’s complaint has been made based on allegations that discrimination occurred against her disability, her religion, her race, her ancestry and her family status — all of which are protected by the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code.
According to the Ministry of Social Services the “supportive living program,” which is operated by the non-profit Street Workers Advocacy Project (SWAP) through a contract with the ministry, helps keep vulnerable mothers and babies together. It can support up to 14 families at a time.
Since a change of leadership in 2020 though, the program has come under increasing criticism from former residents and former staff.
Four complaints naming SWAP as a respondent have now been filed with the SHRC.
Here’s the process.
Once the SHRC has determined a complaint falls within its jurisdiction, and complaint documentation has been served upon the respondent, the typical first step involves a mediation session organized by the commission.
If this does not resolve the complaint, the commission will commence an investigation involving the chief commissioner. This is typically followed by another attempt at mediation, after which the chief commissioner can direct the complaint to the Queen’s Bench for hearing.
The formalization of a complaint does not prove that any wrongdoing has occurred.
Three of those complaints are currently in the investigation stage.
One of those, as reported by Global News last year, involved a former resident who said she was told she couldn’t use cannabis for harm reduction while living in program housing even though she had a medical prescription.
Munro’s complaint is in the initial medication stage.
Munro said her problems began after the change of leadership, and after the departure of a cultural liaison employed by the program, whom she had become quite close with.
She said that led to the level of cultural teaching and programming within the program becoming very limited.
Access to smudging, according to Munro, was also restricted when residents were informed they could no longer smudge in their rooms. She said the sage provided to Indigenous residents for the ceremony began to be locked away in a program manager’s office, while it had previously been kept in an openly accessible community room.
Munro said she also had requests to see and speak with elders denied.
“There was no Indigenous presence in the building right after the cultural liaison had left,” she said, drawing comparisons to the residential school system and perpetuated trauma suffered by Indigenous people.
“When we moved into Raising Hope, it was supposed to be about keeping families together but that is not the case. I don’t even know how many times I would see workers come and take the babies from the family.”
Another code violation alleged in the complaint includes a situation in which Munro says managers refused to transport her daughter to daycare even though she was advised by her addictions counsellor that she needed eight hours a day to practise mental health and addictions therapy.
She added that the program provided transportation to other residents for reasons such as “picking up fast food or junk food, buying cigarettes, visiting friends and boyfriends.”
She said that on another occasion, when she was suffering from severe chest pains, she was “transported to the hospital by a Raising Hope caseworker who ignored me and did not offer to stay with me which is a requirement of the policy manual.”
As these events began to add up, Munro said she became increasingly close to relapsing. At one point, she said that she even had a message to her old drug dealer typed out and that without the help and support of contacts outside of the Raising Hope program, she would likely have hit send.
“Relapse could mean death for me because of the toxic drug market,” Munro said.
“If I relapsed, they would evict me, take my baby and I would have been right back in a system that I was so desperately trying to get out of.”
Munro said she decided to go to the human rights commissioner after attempts to have her concerns heard by leadership within the program and at the Ministry of Social Services went largely unheard.
She said she sent a letter, on behalf of herself and five other residents (five of whom were Indigenous), to the ministry.
“A lot of women in that program, including myself, we come from more difficult backgrounds including domestic violence so it’s kind of ingrained in us to never speak out because there will always be consequences,” Munro said.
“But living in that place, I realized there are children and a lot of vulnerable women involved, so I couldn’t just sit there anymore. I had to say something.”
She said, though, that she received nothing more than an acknowledgement of receipt in response.
Then, in the months following, she said she was “subjected to repeated acts of discrimination, abuse and humiliation” and was told by program administrator Barb Horvath that she should begin to transition out of the program despite her repeatedly expressing that she didn’t feel she was ready to leave.
She said that after pleading to program management to let her stay, she attended a residents’ meeting during which SWAP executive director Barb Lawrence “berated, intimidated and humiliated” her, though the meeting was called to inform residents that a program worker has relapsed.
She said that less than a month later she was evicted, despite her providing communication from her doctor that said she was still in need of assistance and support to help her with her substance use disorder.
“I was a victim of a government-funded program that was originally designed to help vulnerable and at-risk women and children but it was in fact, harming and abusing us,” Munro said.
“It was an institutionalized and punitive environment like the residential school setting that my father and grandfather spoke of.”
During Munro’s interview with Global News, she was joined by Cheryl Deschene, a former Raising Hope employee and advocate for Munro and the other women who have been raising complaints.
Deschene explained that a number of other complaints have been filed, including with Saskatchewan’s privacy commissioner, with the Ministry of Social Services and even with the Regina Police Service.
These detail allegations that residents’ personal health information is inadequately protected under privacy legislation, the mishandling of the complaint sent by the residents to social services, and an incident where a SWAP advisory committee member allegedly impersonated a third-party program reviewer in an email sent to staff members.
“Where there’s smoke there’s fire. I’m very confused about how you can continue to breach your contract for service, not comply with privacy legislation, or human rights legislation, harm residents,” Deschene said.
“These are vulnerable women and children, the majority of whom are Indigenous. How do you do all that and still keep your job?”
Munro and Deschene believe that Lawrence should step down or be removed from her position.
They have also previously called for the removal of Horvath and Escobar.
They fear that if nothing changes within the program, women will continue to struggle with their recoveries. And they believe that can be a contributing factor to potentially deadly outcomes.
One former resident of the program, Marilyn Gordon, died early last year after being evicted and denied re-entry, according to family members, friends and former Raising Hope staff.
“Even though I can’t say, ‘because she got booted out she died,’ that’s not really the truth,” Deschene said.
“But it contributed to those deaths and to those self-destructive behaviours, and to people being afraid to reach out.”
Global News contacted Raising Hope for a response, via phone and email, detailing the claims and specifically asking for comment from Lawrence or Horvath.
A representative on the phone said no comment would be given on any of the claims, the complaints filed or the calls for removal of any of the existing leadership. The email has not yet been responded to.
Asked for a response to the complaint earlier this month, Social Services Minister Lori Carr said she would not comment on an ongoing Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission process.
In a written statement, Mitch Tremblay, who was one of the recipients of the residents’ letter and is the executive director of community service with Social Services added the following.
“More than a year ago, the Ministry of Social Services was made aware of some concerns brought forward by prior employees of the organization, along with a number of past participants,” he wrote.
“Since that time, the Ministry has engaged in extensive correspondence, and has met with those individuals about their concerns on four different occasions.”
Last year, the ministry of social services contracted advisory firm MNP to conduct a third-party review of the Raising Hope program. The review was completed last June. The ministry told Global News that “many of those individuals” were interviewed as part of the review.
“Indigenous advisors provided guidance to the review to help ensure it was conducted in a culturally respectful and responsive manner,” Tremblay said, adding that “SWAP’s current board is primarily made up of Indigenous women” with “lived experience.”
The review has not been released publicly.
Since leaving Raising Hope, Munro has been receiving housing and support from Regina Treaty Status Indian Services (RTSIS).
She said many of the supports she receives through RTSIS, such as access to elders and traditional medicine, as well as reliable access to counsellors, weren’t present when she was at Raising Hope.
“There’s been numerous times where I’ve had to call my counsellor late at night on the weekend or I can even text her,” she said.
“They never show any judgment or even anger. There’s been times where I’ve messed up on rent and they’ve never made me feel shame.”
Munro said that for Raising Hope to be similarly successful moving forward, she believes it needs a greater Indigenous presence. She also said the program would benefit by employing people with similar life experience to that of residents.
“There were certain support staff at Raising Hope with life experience and those are the ones I connected with the most,” she said.
“So I think more of that is needed.”