A new grassroots organization is calling for the CEO of Siloam Mission, a Christian humanitarian organization that serves Winnipeg’s homeless population, to resign.
‘Not My Siloam’ is a new group made up of former Siloam Mission staff members and concerned citizens. The group says Jim Bell, Siloam Mission’s CEO since 2017, has been a barrier to the inclusion of Indigenous traditions and cultural practices in Siloam Mission services.
“There was not a lot of consistent space” dedicated to cultural practices, said Delvina Kejick, the former spiritual and cultural care coordinator at Siloam Mission.
“There was no space, there was no place that existed that way.”
Kejick describes her former job (she resigned in September 2020) as connecting Indigenous people accessing Siloam Mission’s services with their culture, traditions and history.
During her time at Siloam Mission Kejick was never made a full-time staff member.
“As a staff person I was not included in much of the decision-making,” said Kejick, adding how she was not consulted or brought into conversation relevant to her work, like documents written on the practice of smudging.
“I was working there at the time but I was not invited to the table to even talk on that,” she said.
Kejick says, overall, Indigenous traditions and history were sidelined at Siloam Mission and not recognized as an integral element of rehabilitation for Indigenous homeless people.
That is among the reasons why she, and with others affiliated with ‘Not My Siloam,’ say Bell needs to resign.
“I do think that resignation does need to happen to change the things that really, really need to change,” she said.
Bell signed the Winnipeg Indigenous Accord in 2017 and Siloam Mission’s stated values include actively working “towards reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.”
Currently there is no Indigenous representation on Siloam Mission’s board of directors, another issue pointed out by Not My Siloam.
Siloam Mission declined an interview but did release a statement addressing the issues raised by Not My Siloam.
“We are saddened to see negative messages being circulated on social media through a coordinated campaign that misrepresents Siloam Mission,” reads the statement.
The statement adds that a “cultural competently evaluation” is underway by Siloam Mission’s Indigenous education committee which “will be sharing some initial findings with the Board of Directors in early 2021 which will help to shape a framework for how Siloam Mission can more meaningfully meet the needs of our Indigenous clients.”
For Kara Von Riesen, a former program coordinator at Siloam, the evaluation is largely lip service.
“They have completely disregarded voices in the past and their own commitments to culturally competent programming with the Indigenous Accord,” Von Riesen said. “The public should not be encouraged or put at ease.”
Von Riesen says that, during her time at Siloam Mission, she saw a regression on the inclusion of Indigenous people in decision-making and a lack of understanding on steps towards reconciliation.
Roughly sixty-six per cent of all homeless individuals identify as Indigenous, according to the most recent data from the City of Winnipeg.
One homeless advocate says the number is probably a conservative estimate.
“The street census only gives you a snapshot picture of twenty-four hours of who’s out there and who they’re able to reach and access,” said Lucille Bruce, CEO of End Homelessness Winnipeg, which formally became an Indigenous organization in 2019.
Bruce says that, after decades of systemic erasure, promoting Indigenous culture is essential to combatting homelessness in Winnipeg.
“It’s a holistic way of life and being,” said Bruce, “That’s what will give people the ability to understand who they are and feel that sense of belonging, community, and self-worth.”
Kejick agrees and acknowledges Siloam Mission is doing important work but says changes need to take place in order to better serve Winnipeg’s homeless population.
“You can look at an organization like Siloam and, yes, there are some good things happening, there are essential services that are happening,” said Kejick, “But in my mind, an essential service is that individuals feel that they were created as they were intended to be.”