Grand Chief Peter Johnston of the Council of Yukon First Nations addresses media during a news conference about the shelter transition. (Dana Hatherly/Yukon News)

CYFN Grand Chief set on refocusing Whitehorse shelter

Council of Yukon First Nations and Connective will take over Whitehorse Emergency Shelter on Oct. 1

Grand Chief Peter Johnston of the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) wants to refocus the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter as it evolves under new management.

On Oct. 1, the Yukon government is transferring management of the shelter located at 405 Alexander St. to Connective, a not-for-profit dealing in housing and other supports, as the operator and CYFN as a sub-contractor.

Johnston spoke about the transition plans for the shelter at a Sept. 21 news conference alongside Minister of Health and Social Services Tracy-Anne McPhee and Mark Miller, Connective’s chief executive officer. CYFN executive director Shadelle Chambers and Liz Vick, Connective’s vice president of strategy, were also on hand to answer reporters’ questions.

“No offense to government, but for over 500 years, we’ve never had really true success whenever government has done anything for First Nations and we’re still dealing with the repercussions and the disruption of that,” Johnston said.

CYFN is a non-profit political advocacy organization representing Yukon First Nations that hold traditional territories. It will provide cultural understanding and support for working with First Nation people at the shelter.

“I think there’s so much lack of understanding of what the shelter is supposed to provide to the intention of what’s happening there — the social aspect of it, if you will — let alone what’s currently happening here in our community when it comes to the opioid reality or the addiction reality,” Johnston said.

Johnston noted that data collection will be crucial for closing gaps and inefficiencies that are not being met.

He said data will help with understanding the demographics and complexity of issues present at the shelter — including barriers clients may be facing regarding insecure housing or lack of support through the justice system.

“We need to understand the nature of the client and I think that’s possibly one of the missing pieces […] is that we have a certain demographic that we should be dealing with in a certain manner,” he said.

The government has been operating the shelter since early 2019. Before that it was called the Salvation Army’s Centre of Hope. Johnston said the Salvation Army had policies related to being faith-based and were not willing to take in people that were under the influence of alcohol and drugs, which put up a lot of barriers.

“I think with a brand-new approach and a brand-new reality, data collection will definitely be very important to how we not only focus the next few years, but most importantly, the next few months.”

Some business owners and area residents have complained about safety in the area.

“We need a community safety plan,” Johnston said.

Chambers said the Yukon’s department of Health and Social Services funded community safety planning work specifically for the shelter that has been completed and submitted to the territorial government. She said there are ongoing discussions in terms of what recommendations can be carried out immediately and in the long term.

Connective is a not-for-profit that operates in the Yukon and British Columbia. It was formerly known as the John Howard Society.

Connective will be accountable for incidents at the shelter. It is pledging to establish relationships and open communication through an information page on its website and is getting ready to host a series of community information sessions for neighbours and the general public to attend in the weeks after the takeover.

In June, the Yukon government confirmed in an email that it has approved paying Connective up to $5.4 million per year for ongoing operations and management of the shelter.

Miller said there will be no service interruptions during the transfer, as well as no changes in daily operations and employee roles.

“The shelter will continue to operate with a harm-reduction, trauma-informed lens and a culturally appropriate approach,” he said.

“Through our operations, we will continue to listen to and evaluate our services to ensure that what we offer and how we offer it is optimal to meet the needs of the shelter residents.”

The Yukon government will continue providing its emergency medical services on-site paramedic program, mental wellness and substance use services and community outreach services at the shelter.


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