The owners of a proposed wellness centre for Indigenous families are suing a small central Alberta town for $4 million, alleging town officials were prejudiced and obstructed the project.
The Bashaw Retreat Centre filed a statement of claim with the Court of King’s Bench in Wetaskiwin on Monday, alleging that the Town of Bashaw and various current and former elected officials and employees abused their power and discriminated against the business because of a plan to offer services to Indigenous clients.
“As soon as it became known that First Nations people were going to be going there, all of the sudden the way this business was viewed completely changed and that stigma was applied because of a racial bias,” the centre’s lawyer Phillip Millar said during a news conference Monday.
James Carpenter and his business partner Dr. Tony Mucciarone sought to open the wellness centre on a five-acre property in Bashaw, Alta., a town of more than 800 people about 80 kilometres northeast of Red Deer.
None of the allegations in the statement of claim have been proven in court.
Reached by phone Monday, Bashaw chief administrative officer Theresa Fuller said that the town hadn’t yet been served with the statement of claim and declined to comment further.
Fuller is named as one of the defendants.
Allegations of prejudice
According to the statement of claim, in 2017 the town approved an application to develop the facility into a residential care facility for seniors.
But by 2021, plans changed and the owners wanted to turn the property into a wellness centre for Indigenous families.
According to the statement of claim, after the owners requested a letter of support from the town in April 2021, the town informed them that their business venture was a “change in use” and that a new application was required.
The owners submitted an application for a residential care facility for First Nations’ clientele in May 2021, but the town determined that more information was required.
It’s alleged that in June 2021 Carpenter became aware that members of town council were against First Nations families coming to Bashaw.
“They believed having a further presence of First Nations people would devalue their residential property, would lead to safety concerns and further members of the town council had a general distaste for interactions with the First Nations communities,” the owners allege in the statement of claim.
Over the next year, the town repeatedly requested additional information, and the owners responded to each request, according to the claim.
In early May 2022, the application was finally deemed to be complete – but later that month the town once again asked for more information. In August 2022, the town considered and ultimately denied the application, citing needing more information.
But the owners argue a change in use application should not have been required, alleging that no new construction was required and the facility would have the same uses.
The owners also allege that multiple members of the town council have financial conflicts of interests that should have precluded them from voting on the application.
At the news conference Monday, Carpenter explained that the centre would have been a place for families to gather and take part in everything from education to healing and cultural programs.
“All the programming was Indigenous-led,” he said.
The centre would have been able to accommodate five families of up to five people at a time who would stay for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, Carpenter said.
He said that no matter how they explained the concept to the town, it never seemed to land.
“Somehow we were caught in this cloud that frankly became overwhelming, confusing and discouraging,” he said.
The location was chosen in part because of proximity to Maskwacis, a community north of Bashaw that is home to four First Nations.
Elder Charlene Burns, an advocate for First Nations women and mothers who supported the project said the centre could have served Indigenous families from across central Alberta.
“This would have been one of the most beautiful programs,” said Burns, who also spoke at the news conference. “It’s really sad that we have to go through this route to address this.”
Carpenter said they are now trying to sell or lease the property in Bashaw, but said he does hope the wellness centre can be opened elsewhere.