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P.E.I.’s minister of social development and housing found himself under fire in the legislature on Tuesday following claims that Salvation Army staff may be mistreating clients at a shelter and outreach centre.
Last week, Hudson’s department announced a three-year, $3.7 million agreement with the Salvation Army to operate the Bedford-MacDonald House, a community outreach centre and soon-to-be 20-bed transition unit at Smith Lodge.
But in a Guardian story published on Saturday, three former employees and two clients claimed that staff employed by the Salvation Army have discriminated against low-income individuals seeking support for reasons of race, mental health or past legal trouble.
A former staff member described an Indigenous man being turned away from the Bedford-MacDonald House shelter because he was Indigenous and had a criminal record. Another former staff member described other staff speaking about Indigenous clients in a derogatory manner and said they talked to clients like children.
On Tuesday, Hudson faced several questions about the province’s oversight of the Salvation Army by Green MLA Hannah Bell.
“It is clear that the services provided are in breach of basic human rights," Bell said during question period. "What are you doing right now to address this shocking failure of your government?"
In response, Hudson called the Salvation Army an “incredibly credible organization.” He said the outreach centre at Smith Lodge is overseen by a community board with representatives from many local non-profits.
"I think it would be open to debate whether the individuals, whether their basic human rights have been trampled upon," Hudson said. "I would certainly look at it from a different standpoint."
On Monday, a public relations staff member for the Salvation Army Maritime Division said the organization would “promptly investigate” the allegations raised by former staff and clients.
But Bell said it was “totally inappropriate” for the organization to conduct the investigation.
"Will you commit to an independent third-party investigation to begin immediately?" Bell asked.
“I certainly would not rule that out,” Hudson said in response.
In an interview, Bell said she was “shocked” by Hudson’s response.
"These are really serious concerns about people who are vulnerable,” Bell said. "I'm really quite horrified that the minister would be so cavalier in his comments."
Bell said the allegations from former staff should raise questions about plans to open Smith Lodge as a 20-bed transitional housing unit in the spring. The plan would involve 10 beds allocated to men and 10 for women within the same space.
Bell said she had concerns for safety of housing clients.
"We can't do that, if you can't manage to run a drop-in centre,” Bell said. "You can't do more of the same thing if it's doing so badly now."
In an interview, Hudson declined to offer reasons for why he said the allegations of human rights breaches were “open to debate.”
He said he has spoken to two majors with the Salvation Army organization since Saturday about the allegations of mistreatment.
He said he was pushing for the investigation from the Salvation Army to be completed before the end of the year.
"Timeline has to be short," Hudson said. "In my opinion, and I will certainly be pushing for it, within a two-to-three week period very maximum, if at all possible, sooner."
Hudson also said that a governing board of the community outreach centre will be reviewing the report from the investigation and will be able to offer recommendations. The board includes representatives from the Mi’kmaq Confederacy of Prince Edward Island, the Native Council of Prince Edward Island and several other community organizations.
Hudson said it was too early to say if the results from the internal investigation would be made public.
He said the controversy would not affect plans to open the 20-bed housing unit in the spring at Smith Lodge.
Stu Neatby is the political reporter for The Guardian.