A room for Fort Smith’s seniors becomes a political saga
At the end of January, ahead of major renovation work, Fort Smith councillors cancelled the local seniors’ society’s lease for a room in the town’s recreation centre.
Two months of political acrimony have ensued.
On Thursday, the latest meeting between the seniors and the town ended with vastly different interpretations and little obvious progress.
The Fort Smith Seniors’ Society says it was shocked at losing its right to exclusively use and manage the room inside the rec centre. The society’s president, Mary-Pat Short, called the move “a bombshell.”
The town’s mayor and councillors argue they are not evicting seniors from the room but instead want to establish a long-term agreement – once renovations are complete – to ensure everyone in the town has equitable access to the room.
The main issue is who will control use of the room after the two years of renovations are complete – but there are also disagreements over the renovation plans.
Multiple meetings between the two groups haven’t resolved the problem, but both parties told Cabin Radio they hope an agreement will be reached soon.
“I think it is the first of many discussions as we still have a lot to talk about and to work through,” Mayor Lynn Napier said when reached by text on Thursday evening after the most recent meeting, noting she felt the discussions were “a positive step forward.”
Short had a different outlook.
“It was disappointing. It wasn’t in any way a ‘lets-solve-this-problem’ meeting,” Short said on Friday morning.
The issues at hand, first reported by NNSL, are contentious. A petition circulating in Fort Smith calls on the town council to let the seniors maintain control of the room while, at a committee meeting this month, councillors discussed a motion put forward by Councillor Chris Westwell to stop entering into such private leases entirely.
Westwell said leases “have been regular headaches, have resulted always in antagonizing situations, and have always resulted in somehow council being dragged into a situation that is at best described as messy.”
Seniors controlled room for past 23 years
Since the Fort Smith Recreation Centre opened, the seniors’ society has controlled the seniors’ room at the front of the building.
Since the room lease began 23 years ago, Short said, the society has owned everything in the room – down to the blinds on the windows – “without incident.”
The society was paying the town $210 per month to lease the room prior to the termination. The lease will now end in early April following the town’s provision of 60-day notice, as required by the lease agreement.
At the end of January, councillors passed a motion to terminate leases with both the seniors’ society and the curling club. Short said the society received notice by email a few days later. (She questions whether the cancellation is legally legitimate, arguing the lease states cancellation requires a registered letter instead.)
Short said her society’s stance – that it should retain control of the room – has the support of three Indigenous leaders in the community: Chief David Poitras of the Salt River First Nation (who has shared the petition online), Chief Gerry Cheezie of Smith’s Landing First Nation, and Vice-President Allan Heron of the Fort Smith Métis Council.
She also said Dennis Bevington, the former NWT MP who was the town’s mayor at the time of the recreation centre’s construction, has written a letter stating his understanding two decades ago – when the society contributed $35,000 toward the building of the recreation centre – was that the room would remain theirs. Bevington is a current member of the seniors’ society.
“This was all part of the understanding that, on an ongoing basis, seniors would have use of this room and the management of the room,” Short said. “On the basis of this understanding, a large amount of money was raised by the seniors at that time.”
But Councillor Westwell, referencing Bevington’s same letter, interpreted its contents differently.
Westwell said the letter showed “the questionable nature of the decision by the mayor of the time, seemingly admitting to an undocumented decision at the time.”
Why was the lease terminated?
Despite councillors’ belief that they had been clear about the reasons for cancelling the lease – the impending two-year construction period and the need to use the space for town programming – Short said seniors don’t feel they have ever received a direct answer.
“It was things like because of construction and safety,” Short said she had heard from council.
Yet the latest four-year lease for the room was signed in June 2020.
“That doesn’t seem like a very straightforward answer because of that fact,” said Short. “The town knew there was going to be construction in the rec centre, so what changed?”
According to Short, councillors said the town’s daycare program needs use of the room. Short questioned how safety can be a factor if that’s the case.
“You’re saying it is safe for daycare children to be in the building during the changes, but it isn’t safe for us to be in the building? That was the puzzlement we had,” said Short.
The daycare is currently housed in an adjacent room, but will need to be moved during renovation work to accommodate construction.
“Because daycare is an essential service, and it’s the only facility where we can run a daycare, we are still looking at having the daycare run through the recreation centre during the construction phase,” explained Mayor Napier.
Who should manage the space?
The root of the disagreement is who should have control over the seniors’ room in the coming decades.
A 2019 Taylor Architecture Group (TAG) report concluded the seniors’ room was “seldom used” and recommended the room be modified to accommodate more user groups.
After Cabin Radio reported on initial plans for the $4-million recreation centre renovation in May 2020, the seniors’ society disputed TAG’s conclusions. In a letter to councillors, the society wrote: “If TAG had desired accurate statistics, it could have asked us.”
Short told Cabin Radio the room has hosted everything from union meetings to a midwifery postpartum group to ukulele lessons.
Nevertheless, Napier cited the study’s finding that the space wasn’t being used to its full capacity, and said the town wants the room to benefit the whole community.
“The seniors have said they want exclusive use of the room, where they just decide who can use the room and when,” said Napier.
That makes some town councillors uncomfortable. They believe one user group shouldn’t have full control over who can access a taxpayer-funded public space.
“That space is there for all the community,” said Councillor Mike Couvrette. “It should not be locked.”
Napier said the town suggested to the seniors that staff take over management of room bookings, with the seniors allowed priority access for their regular programming.
“They would automatically get that time, they would have first priority as the traditional user of that room … we’re not looking at taking anything away from the seniors,” the mayor said.
“We want an enhanced facility that works for everybody. We want a recreation and community centre where people go to spend time with each other, where there’s intergenerational connection, where there’s youth and seniors and infants, and people are using the library and using the wi-fi and hanging out and meeting and connecting. And we were not looking to put barriers or gaps between community members. We’re trying to bring people together.”
Short, though, says the way the room has worked for the past 23 years was “respectful of the seniors.”
“The society had management of the room: management for their own members and their own activities, but also management insofar as other groups and organizations who wanted to use the room,” she reflected.
She said the seniors are shocked “that people representing the community don’t have an automatic sense that they should communicate, and have some regard and respect for the traditions of the community, and the way in which the community sees itself as honouring seniors.”
“The reason that [maintaining autonomy over the room] matters is because everything in that room is provided by us,” Short added, noting she doesn’t feel like the town has adequately explained why it wants control of the room.
Disagreements over renovation plans
Not only do the parties disagree over who will manage the space, but they differ on how the space should be upgraded during renovations.
Napier said the room – which will still be called the seniors’ room following the work – is getting a major $280,000 facelift. The town plans to make upgrades like including a second entrance, creating an atrium that will allow the room’s users to access washrooms even when the rest of the centre is closed, and adding more kitchen equipment.
Many of these changes followed public consultations in July 2020, the town said this February, when it announced extra work to the recreation centre would cost an additional $615,000.
Short said seniors were not adequately consulted. She believes the society doesn’t need an atrium or a commercial kitchen – they want the room to be made larger, a second entrance added, and an extended counter placed inside.
Following the termination of the leases in late January, the town held another four-hour public consultation on February 13. The poster advertising the second round of consultations read, “We want to make sure your feedback was incorporated from the first round of consultations.”
Seniors, councillors accuse each other
Both councillors and seniors have accused the other side of spreading misinformation.
“I think that there is some blatant, blatant misinformation circulating in the community and online,” said Councillor Jessica Cox at a meeting earlier this week.
“The town has committed to providing both user groups space to continue their respective programming during renovations and once the renovations are done. To twist those facts into a myth about the seniors’ society being evicted from the recreation centre, I would suggest, is sensationalist and irresponsible.”
Most of the councillors who spoke said they felt council had been clear with both the seniors’ society and the curling club that the groups’ long-term use of spaces would continue to exist.
Short, though, told Cabin Radio she was “concerned about misstatements some elected councillors have made.”
The only councillor who came out in support of the seniors was Kevin Campbell, who said: “I’m not in favour of this motion. I’m going be signing that petition when I see it … we’re basically evicting [the seniors].”
Campbell said local seniors “find their quality of life up, having a room, and having their say with what’s going on with that room.” He said the town has “got all kinds of open areas … for everything else” that it could use for programming instead.
‘Emotionally charged language’
Short, who heard about Monday’s committee meeting second-hand from another member of the society who attended, said she was told “emotionally charged language was used about how outrageous the seniors are being.”
At the meeting, Councillor Westwell said: “The first meeting we had with the seniors’ society was the second day after we had been presented with drawings … from the architects.” At that meeting, Westwell said, “council and administration was accused, by allegory, of being Hitler and Stalin.”
“That was the first meeting,” Westwell continued. “That was the level of BS and hyperbole that I got right off the get-go. And yes, that’s the word I’m using.”
The councillor noted other seniors in Fort Smith had told him there was “already organization against [council]” and that “everybody has been assigned somebody, and that seniors were already, word-for-word, ‘out for blood,’ looking to turf us.”
Asked by Cabin Radio if the seniors’ society was organizing against council, Short said: “There are elections in the fall and obviously individuals are voted in based on performance. But there has been absolutely no discussion or strategization for turfing councillors.”
Westwell said council could not “act under special pressures, or interests, or special user groups, or strong advocacies or lobbyists, or big scary groups of seniors.”
What happens next?
Councillors are set to return to Westwell’s motion – to avoid entering into any future leases – at a later date. Napier said a broader discussion of leases should take place beyond the recreation centre debate.
While the seniors’ society wants clearer answers about the cancelling of the lease and control of the room, the town wants to address more immediate concerns.
“The discussions that we’ve had with the seniors to date have been about the town cancelling the lease,” said Napier on Wednesday, the day prior to the most recent meeting. “We haven’t been able to progress into a discussion about interim use of this space, or about long-term use of the space.”
Napier said council agreed it was important to meet with both the seniors and the curlers to talk about the implications of the renovations, how the town could help with storage needs, and what the groups needed in order to continue programming over the next two years.
Short said she told Napier every single item in the seniors’ room would need to be stored.
“The whole tone wasn’t about solving anything, the tone was about where the plans go now. Seniors feel so sideswiped by the shock of the change,” said Short of the latest meeting with the town on Thursday.
While the last week has been tense, the mayor remained positive.
“I still believe that we can come to an agreement about the use of the space,” Napier said.