An Edmonton-area healing lodge says it no longer employs a Cree elder at the centre of sexual harassment allegations.
The man, who could not be reached for comment, allegedly made inappropriate sexual comments to an Indigenous female client at Poundmaker’s Lodge Treatment Centre in St. Albert, Alta.
RCMP in Morinville, Alta., confirm they have opened a “criminal harassment” investigation.
“We’re still in the information gathering stages,” said Cpl. Sheldon Robb, “and the investigation is continuing.”
Patty Piche said the alleged incident happened in November to her 20-year-old sister, who is participating in a residential detox program.
She said her sister told her she was alone with the spiritual advisor/elder, who is employed to provide culturally appropriate addictions counselling, when he allegedly made inappropriate comments.
“…he begins to tell her How he has different DESIRES from his WIFE! & If she is up for it he’d let her see him NAKED and began to push himself on her and ask if she wanted it,” Piche said in her Facebook post.
“SHE RAN AS FAST AS SHE COULD!! She has informed the other staff just for them to tell her not to say anything and they are going to investigate and tell her there is a spot in a treatment in B.C!”
After Piche posted about what allegedly happened on Facebook she received a letter from Poundmaker’s lawyer demanding she remove her post.
“Your post makes false allegations against Poundmaker’s…and have been viewed by numerous people,” lawyer Kobewka Stark said in the letter obtained by APTN News.
“The allegations in your posts include statements that Poundmaker’s did not properly investigate this matter, that Poundmaker’s has treated your sister in an abusive fashion and that Poundmaker’s is attempting to prevent an investigation.”
Stark said none of that was true, and, in fact, Poundmaker’s would assist the RCMP in any investigation.
“I can advise that (the elder) is no longer employed at Poundmaker’s,” he added.
But there was no denial of what her sister alleged.
Piche said she will not remove her post.
“A lot of people are thanking me because they never knew who to talk to,” she told APTN.
“Because, really, who are they going to believe – someone going there for addiction or the one helping them?”
Requests for comment
A spokesperson for Poundmaker’s did not return requests for comment from APTN.
But a spokesperson did post a news release on the centre’s Facebook page reiterating their lawyer’s position.
“A Facebook post has been made by an individual regarding a matter involving a Poundmaker’s Lodge Treatment Centres client and a former staff member,” said Community Engagement Officer Libby Szarka in the release.
“This post has made false accusations against Poundmaker’s Lodge Treatment Centres and include allegations the staff failed to properly investigate this matter, attempted to prevent an investigation, and failed to have proper polices and protocol in place.”
Szarka said Poundmaker’s does have policies and procedures “designed to provide a safe and healthy environment for clients and staff” and is following provincial legislation.
“We take all concerns seriously and ensure prompt appropriate action is taken; we take pride in supporting those we serve,” the release added.
A spokesperson for the Alberta Ministry of Mental Health and Addiction confirmed Poundmaker’s receives provincial grant funding but is not a government facility.
“It would be inappropriate for us to comment further, given the RCMP is reportedly investigating the matter,” Kassandra Kitz said in an email to APTN.
Piche said her sister told her Poundmaker’s wants to transfer her to another facility – a transfer she said her sister has refused.
“She is in there now; she gets out on (Dec.) 9,” Piche said.
“So that’s why she is trying to stick it out because they want to send her to B.C., and then she’ll have to start from Square 1. She doesn’t want to take another two months (away) from her kids.”
Piche said her inbox filled with messages of support for her sister after the news broke.
APTN spoke with others who also made allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour at Poundmaker’s.
APTN is not naming the spiritual advisor/elder because he could not be reached for comment.
The centre, which is named after famed Cree Chief Poundmaker, is a co-ed drug and alcohol addictions treatment centre on the outskirts of St. Albert.
Province of Alberta
The province of Alberta owns the building and leases out space to the organization.
Piche said she is worried about her sister, whose access to a phone and computer is restricted during treatment.
She said RCMP in Morinville are in contact with her sister but unable to interview her in person at this time because it would interrupt her treatment.
“She’s just been doing it all over (the) phone. She uses her calls to call them because she’s only allowed so many calls.”
Both women are from First Nations in Alberta, and their situation has caught the attention of supporters across Canada, who are sharing their story online.
“We believe survivors,” said Alaya McIvor, who is a national advocate for at-risk women based in Winnipeg.
“It’s not only the one individual that came forward.”
RCMP confirmed they have heard from more than one person.
“I know the lead investigator’s been talking to a few different people,” said Robb.
“We do encourage anybody (to contact us) if they got any new information that will help us out.”
But, by hiring a lawyer and threatening to sue Piche, McIvor said Poundmaker’s is sending the wrong message.
“We have to keep voicing and addressing these matters,” she said, “because it’s silence from within organizations that helps perpetuate that violence towards women.”