By: Stu Salkeld, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, East Central Alberta Review
The Town of Bashaw, town council and it’s chief administrative officer (CAO) are being sued for $4 million by the owners and stakeholders of a property that wanted to offer First Nations family wellness programs claiming racism was the root cause of denial.
Town of Bashaw council last summer unanimously defeated a development permit application from the Bear Hills Family Wellness Centre that proposed to offer family wellness services to First Nations families from Maskwacis. Bear Hills would have been located in the Bashaw retreat centre owned by James Carpenter and Dr. Tony Mucciarone.
The council and staff at the time stated they never got the information they needed on what programs and activities Bear Hills would be offering, along with other questions they said went unanswered, such as emergency planning.
On Feb. 27 the owners of the facility, along with Russel Burns, introduced as First Nations consultant for the project, Charlene Burns, First Nations Elder and Phillip Millar, lawyer for the owners, held a press conference in Calgary announcing the lawsuit. Millar opened the press conference by saying the town, town council and CAO, “…discriminated against a local business” by turning down the development permit application.” Millar continued by saying the owners, “…have no options left” but litigation because the denial can’t be appealed.
Carpenter spoke next, stating Bear Hills was a proposal that featured First Nations families of up to five members attending the centre for wellness programming. He stated the applicants provided the Town of Bashaw with over 900 pages of information but were still turned down.
Carpenter stated applicants knew they had the support of the Bashaw community but the town government was, “…putting up roadblock after roadblock after roadblock,” adding he and his partners decided a lawsuit was the only way forward after denial.
“It’s time someone has to answer for these actions,” added Carpenter.
Dr. Mucciarone stated he worked in Bashaw for 13 years, got to know the community well and realized there was lots of support in Bashaw for the Bear Hills centre. “Most people” wanted the centre in Bashaw said Mucciarone.
The co-owner of the facility went on to say they had already been holding First Nations events at the retreat centre and simply contacted the town office for a letter of support, but then were told that they instead needed to apply for a development permit.
Mucciarone stated he tried to tell the CAO in vain that activities would be much the same as they had always been; he closed by saying he had to stand up to the town and do the right thing.
Millar interjected that the time has never been better than right now for a lawsuit such as this because racism isn’t always in your face and sometimes people in positions of authority show prejudicial behaviour.
Russell stated that, even if the decision was reversed, a lot of damage has been done.
“I don’t think the indigenous people want to be part of this community anymore,” said Russell.
Charlene added that turning down the Bear Hills application was a “…missed opportunity for right relations,” and that the centre could have helped indigenous people across central Alberta.
“The racism is so blatant in this day and age,” said Charlene. “One hundred per cent of our families are impacted by that era of residential schools.”
She added that First Nations people from Maskwacis tried numerous times to sit in a circle with Bashaw town council to no avail.
Both Mucciarone and Millar stated that unnamed members of Bashaw town council had financial interests in the Bear Hills issue which affected the outcome but no other information was provided.
A press release sent to the ECA Review Feb. 26 from Millars Law stated, “Bashaw Retreat Centre, the corporation supporting a First Nations Wellness Retreat Centre, claims the Town Council and other city administrators used their public powers to prevent the provision of services to the people of the Maskwacis.
“Bashaw Retreat Centre claims the defendants improperly used their public powers and deliberately obstructed the proposal, citing concerns over property values and a desire to keep ‘those’ people out of our community. The Plaintiffs have sworn affidavits of stakeholders revealing demonstrated prejudice and racism towards the project from the named defendants.”
When contacted Feb. 27 about the lawsuit, Town of Bashaw CAO Theresa Fuller stated she knew nothing about it.
“The Town has not been served, we have no comment at this time,” stated Fuller’s email.