New Siloam Mission CEO says a top priority to make Indigenous community feel welcome, comfortable

·3 min read

The new CEO of Siloam Mission says the organization has made it a top priority moving forward to ensure that when Indigenous community members access their shelter and services, they feel their cultural and spiritual needs are being met, and being respected.

“We want everyone we work with to feel welcome and feel comfortable, but we also want them to know that we are here to support them on their healing journey, whatever that journey looks like,” Siloam Mission CEO Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud said on Tuesday.

“That is one of the top priorities.”

Located in downtown Winnipeg, Siloam Mission offers temporary shelter, food, clothing, and other services to those who are experiencing homelessness.

According to Blaikie Whitecloud, who stepped into the CEO position just last week, Siloam estimates that more than 75% of their clients identify as Indigenous.

“We know that the overrepresentation of Indigenous people accessing our services and many similar services is the result of residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, and continued policies that disadvantage Indigenous communities economically and socially,” Blaikie Whitecloud said.

She said she also knows that many people who are struggling cannot begin to heal and better themselves unless they have access to cultural traditions and ceremonies that she said are “such a big part of that healing.”

And while the focus on Indigenous-based services is now a priority at Siloam, it wasn’t long ago the organization was being criticized for lacking those cultural services and opportunities.

Jim Bell stepped down as Siloam CEO in February, after facing criticism that Siloam was not meeting the spiritual and cultural needs of Indigenous community members.

A group calling themselves Not My Siloam, which was made up of former staff members and concerned citizens, also made a social media push for changes at the organization, claiming that Bell and others were getting in the way of the inclusion of Indigenous traditions and cultural practices.

“What we have learned through research is that many Indigenous people accessing our services didn’t feel discriminated against, but they did feel quite strongly that there just wasn’t cultural services available,” Blaikie Whitecloud said.

Because of that past criticism, Blaikie Whitecloud said they are consistently working to address those issues, and a big part of that is a brand new strategy they have adopted that she said was created by an outside consulting company, and gives concrete steps the organization can take to make those improvements and changes.

“That report is quite lengthy and includes a lot of recommendations, and all recommendations were adopted by the board,” Blaikie Whitecloud said. “And the report really lays out priorities from the guest’s perspective.”

She said they are also showing their commitment to working with and building stronger relationships with Indigenous people and groups by creating and filling a brand new Director of Indigenous Relations position, and also seeking to add more Indigenous representation to their board of directors.

The recommendations adopted by Siloam’s board also include recruiting and developing retention strategies for Indigenous staff within all levels of the organization, and launching Indigenous education programs for both board and the staff members.

Siloam has also passed recommendations asking that Indigenous community members have access to culturally relevant programs, and that the organization develop stronger partnerships and relationships within the poverty and homelessness sector, and work to fulfill commitments made as part of Winnipeg’s Indigenous Accord, and as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action.

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun

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