After blocking a home for three intellectually disabled men from opening for four years, a rural municipality near Winnipeg accused of human rights violations is now preparing to welcome them.
"It's a new day in Springfield," said Jennifer Frain, executive director of New Directions, the agency that bought the bungalow south of Birds Hill Provincial Park in 2010. "They're going to become a very inclusive community," said Frain. "We're happy to be part of encouraging them to become so."
The RM of Springfield and New Directions reached a mediated settlement through the Manitoba Human Rights Commission that was announced Monday.
The Aspen Glen bungalow was purchased in 2010 by the non-profit agency to house three clients with severe intellectual disabilities who needed a quieter, less crowded setting than an institution and around-the-clock supervision.
New Directions complained the municipality discriminated against its clients by requiring a rezoning of the house to institutional before they could live there and filed a human rights complaint. New Directions said with four or fewer residents living there, they met the zoning requirements for a family dwelling.
In 2012, a court challenge was also filed, accusing the municipality of "discrimination and exclusion cloaked in the language of urban planning." The RM avoided going to court by agreeing to mediation through the Manitoba Human Rights Commission.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms court challenge was filed on behalf of New Directions, Inc., and Bert Gockel, one of its clients. Gockel's family attended a packed Springfield municipal council meeting in 2010 where "offensive, hurtful and outrageous statements" about Gockel were made, a court affidavit said. The crowd suggested Gockel and another client were "sexual deviants" and criminals and posed a threat to the children of the community. They demanded private details, such as diagnoses, "completely disregarding his right to privacy, dignity and respect."
Now that the case has been resolved, Gockel's family is asking for privacy and to move on.
The municipality wants to move on, too. "It's really been a positive experience working with the human rights commission," said Scott Smith, who joined the municipality as CAO two years ago. He said it's important to pass on to other municipalities what the RM has learned though the process. Smith is providing input to a provincial committee developing an information tool kit for municipalities, chaired by Frain.
"My concern is about increasing NIMBYism in Winnipeg and other areas," said Frain, who has a doctorate in psychology.
"People are very fearful and worried about what will happen," she said. "When we're there, we're no longer so scary. We're hopeful we will make good neighbours and develop good relations with folks. We always have."
The four-year battle over the home was worth it, she said. "This was a case that had to be resolved."
Human-rights mediation isn't a speedy process. "It's a long route. It just grinds at a snail's pace," she said.
The agency's law firm, Taylor McCaffrey, and the Public Interest Law Centre donated their time to work on the case, she said.
"The great outcome of this is Springfield's bylaws will change," Frain said. "They need to all review their bylaws and procedures to ensure they're non-discriminatory and inclusive, with no unnecessary barriers or obstacles in the way.
"And we got a little money back for municipal taxes."
The home is being prepared for three intellectually disabled men who've lived with the support of New Directions for many years. They will move in this fall. "They know each other and will do very well as they move toward their senior years," said Frain.
"The reality is we all have to trust each other. We're a civil society and we should be trying to treat one another in a civilized way."