After an MLA described a “personal experience of systemic racism” at Yellowknife’s NWT SPCA animal shelter, the organization denied racism had played a part in what it called an “unfortunate incident.”
In the Legislative Assembly on Wednesday, Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos recounted a recent trip to the shelter during which she had hoped to adopt a puppy.
Martselos spoke during a day-long session on the theme of systemic racism – the same session at which she put forward a motion requesting that the GNWT review its policies to determine where racial and cultural bias may exist.
“I had been searching for a puppy for a number of months at that point, and decided to stop at the SPCA to see some new puppies that had just arrived the day before,” Martselos began.
Martselos said the staff she first met at the shelter “were great,” giving her a tour of the dogs and introducing her to one of the new puppies, which they believed was still available.
“However, the mood and attitude of this situation came to an abrupt halt when an individual in upper management at the SPCA entered the room,” Martselos said.
“Without any introduction on her part or any greeting at all, she pointed and quickly and coldly said, ‘That dog is already spoken for.’ Then, without another word, she immediately turned around, left the room, and never came back.”
Martselos said the “very unfriendly and micro-aggressive response” left her feeling “odd” about the interaction.
“As a Dene woman, I know what racism looks like and feels like and, in that moment, I strongly feel that I experienced systemic racism,” she said.
Martselos said she later faced doubt from some people after sharing her experience with them.
“Maybe she was having a bad day, they say,” she continued. “Maybe she was busy in that moment, they say.
“Well, I’m sure that Black, brown, or Indigenous folks who hear the story will know the experience I’m describing. Not all racism or racial behaviour is the same.”
SPCA says racism ‘not a factor’
The NWT SPCA’s board responded to Martselos’ statement with a three-page news release shared to its website on Friday.
The organization said the board was “distressed to learn” about Martselos’ recollection of her experience.
“We sincerely regret that Ms Martselos had an experience at our shelter that made her feel that she was experiencing racism from within our organization,” the statement read.
However, while the shelter acknowledged the staff member in question “was likely curt and possibly irritated,” the board stated it did not believe the incident was a result of racism.
The SPCA’s board said Martselos was there during non-visiting hours without an appointment and staff should not have been giving her a tour.
“The [member of] management who interacted with Ms Martselos was understandably irritated to arrive at the shelter to find all of the staff on duty gathered, attending to an unscheduled visitor, holding an unvaccinated puppy, with a view to adoption,” the statement continued.
“The NWT SPCA wants to assure Ms Martselos that while this response was unacceptable, it certainly had nothing to do with Ms Martselos’ Indigenous background, or any other reason having to do with Ms Martselos personally.”
The NWT SPCA said it took “full responsibility” for the incident and would work on improving its customer interactions, then ended by advocating for more consistent funding from the GNWT.
“Such funding could allow us to hire a full-time shelter manager or executive director to take over the full-time role currently being undertaken by our overworked and unpaid volunteers,” the board said.
“We thank Ms Martselos for bringing this issue to the attention of the Legislative Assembly and hope that shining a light on the extreme stress that our volunteers are operating under will encourage the assembly to reconsider funding the important work that we do.”
Martselos herself acknowledged the SPCA’s work with animals, saying she regularly donates to the animal shelter in her home community of Fort Smith.
“I’m speaking about this because systemic racism takes many forms and can and does take place anywhere,” she said.