The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations wants the provincial government’s review of Regina’s Raising Hope program to include one of their own First Nations representatives. The program is in place to support vulnerable, at-risk women in the community.
The call comes after the death of 30-year-old Marilyn Gordon, a former resident who accessed the program for several months in 2020. She was suddenly evicted from Raising Hope by staff four months prior to her passing on Jan. 3, 2021.
Her father Roland Desjarlais said on Wednesday that Gordon struggled with mental illness and substance abuse since the passing of her mother in 2017. She ended up entering the Raising Hope program last year in order to heal from her trauma. Desjarlais said it was her way to take steps to rebuilding her life.
“She saw hope in this particular shelter since it had the promises of hope for her and her loving children,” explained Desjarlais.
He continued by saying that she thrived in an environment of compassion and connection until the resignation of four key leadership employees at Raising Hope in the summer of 2020. Desjarlais pointed to this moment being the start of many residents, including his daughter, that returned to self-destructive behaviours. When they reached out for help from management or their case workers, Desjarlais said they were ignored, dismissed or shamed.
“My grief has been intensified by what I have learned about the treatment my daughter received while at Raising Hope,” he continued.
It was in August 2020 when Gordon suffered abuse at the hands of an employee responsible for her care, according to her father. Her six-month-old boy accidentally rolled off the bed and evening shift employees called in a case worker who was on call that night. When the case worker and other employees arrived at Gordon’s apartment, Desjarlais shared how witnesses stated the case worker “smelled strongly of alcohol and began to scream at Marilyn, clap their hands in her face and push on her body.” Gordon’s 10-year-old son was also at the apartment.
Desjarlais mentioned how his daughter’s pleas for help and mental health supports were dismissed and ignored by workers with the program, resulting in her feeling isolated in her apartment. She eventually relapsed in the program.
“She was punished, shamed, judged, repeatedly denied requests to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings because she was not permitted to leave the building unattended. She was on total lockdown, institutionalized and ignored,” said Desjarlais.
That same month, Gordon’s children were apprehended by the Ministry of Social Services. She was evicted from the program in September and was “basically homeless, in active addiction and in complete mental and emotional distress.”
Desjarlais explained how she attempted to get back into Raising Hope in order to get shelter and possibly have her children returned to her. That opportunity never came to be after an intake appointment was postponed to after Christmas due to COVID-19. Gordon was found deceased in her bed by her father.
He said this was ultimately a preventable death.
“I hope that the Raising Hope program will remain open under different leadership who will restore the program pillars and cultural safety components,” stated Desjarlais on Wednesday.
The Ministry of Social Services announced in February that it will conduct an independent review of the not-for-profit program after the Street Workers Advocacy Project (SWAP), the organization which operates Raising Hope, decided it would conduct a review of the program.
In November, a group of former Raising Hope residents and staff members contacted the Ministry of Social Services about their concerns with the adjustments made to the program including changes in upper management and other areas of the program. Multiple staff members were either terminated or left the job after the shift.
However Minister of Social Services Lori Carr stated afterwards that the ministry will take over the review after concerns brought forward to the government.
Changes needed at Raising Hope
The FSIN noted how former members described “a loss in cultural program and trauma-informed practice and the environment to the program became very institutionalized.” The statement continued by saying women who seek assistance from the program do not receive basic needs and the supports necessary for their healing journey.
“These homes are for prevention and the protection of our vulnerable First Nations women,” reads a statement from FSIN Fourth Vice Chief Heather Bear. “Our women need culture and tradition in their lives for their spiritual, mental and physical wellbeing, and when those services or programs are taken away, our women become even more vulnerable than they already are.”
FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron said during Wednesday’s event in Regina that this call is about advocating for immediate change at the shelter.
“The stories these ladies have shared all have one common denominator: immediate reorganization within Raising Hope,” he suggested. “It needs to start with the executive director, some of her staff and some of her board members. The system has failed and it will continue to fail if there’s no change.”
FSIN Second Vice-Chief David Pratt shared the same suggestion as Cameron. He said addressing these issues can bring a positive outcome moving forward.
“We believe the program was started with the best of intentions, which was to support our women and get their babies back to them,” started Pratt. “But somewhere along the way they got off the path.”