Struggling SPCA Ouest de l'Île faces uncertain future
YLJ FILE PHOTO/LAUREN MITCHELL
Following a bumpy history at its Route de la Cité-des-Jeunes location with repeated setbacks since its February 2014 opening, the SPCA Ouest de l’Île is closing its doors due to reported financial difficulties.
SPCA Ouest de l'Île and its numerous cat and dog protégés are without an official home as of June 1. Despite the March 30 launch of a GoFundMe campaign that managed to raise over $47,000 in two months, general manager Remi Brazeau issued a communique May 23 stating that SPCA Ouest was not able to meet its goal despite the tremendous support it received. (The campaign aimed to raise $65,000). Brazeau went on to explain that, "…after almost two weeks of negotiations, a lack of communication from the landlord, and the inability for us to meet the legal deadline that was imposed upon us, we had no other choice but to agree with the landlord to put an end to our existing lease."
Brazeau lists a number of reasons for failure to reach an agreement, including other potential tenants willing to pay a better rate, a steep security deposit, a raise in rent and personal liabilities from all SPCA board members. The owner of the facilities could not be reached for comments as of press time.
Kathleen Denis, speaking on behalf of landlord Constant Denis, disputes some of the reasons put forth by Brazeau for failure to reach an agreement, but she would not provide more details, including the actual amounts owed. "We'd like to say more, but a confidentiality clause in our agreement with Mr. Brazeau prevents us from divulging any additional information," Denis said.
"Until our new location is ready we will continue to offer our services through foster families, and our multiple partners who share our vision and have pledged to help and work with us," Brazeau stated, promising that "no lives will be lost due to our present situation."
Ongoing funding problems
While the news of the coming of the SPCA Ouest in the area was originally welcomed in 2013 by members of the animal rescue community, some questioned the choice of the location because of a rent estimated too high for a non-profit animal shelter relying solely on public donations for funding.
In 2015, a little over a year after opening, SPCA Ouest launched a GoFundMe fundraising campaign citing a need for $50,000 to stay open. The public response was immediate and strong: the target was met and exceeded in a few days. Other funding campaigns followed for a truck, a dog park, and last March, for the rent, but the public's response, this time, was slower and not as generous.
Social media backlash
Financial woes are not the only problems that the beleaguered animal shelter faces. Some people, mostly ex-volunteers and ex-employees, but also some disgruntled pet owners who adopted animals through SPCA Ouest, have come forward to tell their negative experiences. Most have taken to Facebook and embraced anonymity to relate their story and complaints, but others are coming forward openly.
"We can sum up what is going on in 12 names," Remi Brazeau says of the people who raised their voice against SPCA Ouest. "Twelve names, all tied to other shelters. Ninety-eight per cent is speculation and made-up stories without any proof coming from other shelters and their partisans. Ninety-nine per cent have never even set foot inside our shelter, and 100 per cent refuse to come out from behind their keyboard in their quest to demolish our organization."
Brazeau refers to the bitter infighting among different shelters and rescue organizations over anything from the necessity of euthanasia to the number of square feet per animal required in a shelter.
"Regardless of our disagreements, we're all working for the animal cause," someone recently posted on her Facebook page after her husband made a $100 donation to SPCA Ouest. Some voices are raised conciliatorily, others are raised to lay blame and accusations for anything from lack of proper veterinarian care being provided to the animals to misappropriations of funds at SPCA Ouest.
While a quick scan of Facebook will reveal several vitriolic comments aimed at SPCA Ouest and its director Remi Brazeau, a number appear to be merely hearsay, second-hand accounts and unsubstantiated allegations of mismanagement and fraud. Some are first-hand accounts from unhappy adopters, former employees and volunteers. A page named "The Truth About SPCA De L'Ouest" lists several testimonies. Some posts are anonymous, but others don't bother to hide their names. Accusations range from poor conditions for the animals to misuse of donations and failure to pay employees.
Volunteers speak out
"She's scared stiff of the man," an ex-volunteer confided to Your Local Journal, referring to a key volunteer she said would not come forward in fear of reprisal from Brazeau. The volunteer in question did talk to Your Local Journal, but only under anonymity. This volunteer says she worked at SPCA Ouest from the moment the shelter opened its doors but called it quits after two years.
"I walked out because I wasn't happy with the way things were being run. They (Remi Brazeau and his partner, Tracy Bassenden) were not there very often. The employees were left on their own. The medication was supposed to be administered by a vet, but Tracy was doing it, and then employees (were administering medication). More and more cats were getting sick, and vaccines were not being given. A vet would come in every week, but as they got into financial problems, it became every second week."
Allegations of unprofessionalism
This volunteer feels that some animals at the SPCA Ouest should have been euthanized instead of being subjected to pain for extended periods of time. "If they ever received an animal that was badly hurt, they would let it see a vet. But if a cat had rhino (rhinovirus), Tracy would sometimes nurse them back to health. I saw cats that should have been euthanized but that weren't." This volunteer says she witnessed cats that died from their condition. "I saw Tracy put down cats, but I don't think she's authorized to do that. I was right there. Sometimes, it would have been after a few days or weeks of them trying."
YLJ FILE PHOTO/LAUREN MITCHELL
One volunteer alleged that cats infected with rhinovirus respiratory infections at the SPCA Ouest de l’Île were not properly treated.
"If the right people were running this place, it would be perfect," the volunteer added, but she feels that Brazeau's pride will prevent him from ever stepping down. Despite this volunteer's objections to Brazeau and Bassenden's management practices, she says that she "really liked them. I just don't like the way they are doing things."
She warned about believing allegations and hearsay. "I heard the rumours that they were breeding dogs at home. I know that wasn't true, because I had been to their house, and I knew all their dogs were sterilized."
Another ex-volunteer who worked at the SPCA for less than a year stated, "I have no desire to destroy the SPCA (Ouest). I just don't know how they can keep going. I think we need it desperately. I want to have an SPCA. I just think the wrong person (is in charge)," The ex-volunteer said, referring to Brazeau. "He's a control freak. You get along well with him, until you confront him. I tried to get answers, but I couldn't get them. That's why I had to leave. I don't think he's a bad man. I'm not even sure he's a crook. Some people say he's dishonest, but I don't know. I think he's fighting for his life. My personal opinion is that he is desperately in debt."
Poor conditions and management issues
"I never saw any cruelty,” said the volunteer. “I saw an awful lot of poor conditions, getting worse as I went on, because he didn't have the staff. We were losing volunteers faster than we could get them. We were losing loads of volunteers because he was so rude. His wife was impossible. She was completely hopeless with the public. He was a little better, but neither were PR people. He was so concerned about the money. I understand. It was an untenable position. Rent and utilities were $10,000 a month. He was doomed from the moment he started."
This volunteer feels that a lot of what is going on are not attempts to defraud, but merely desperate attempts to survive. "It's just badly run," she concluded. She feels Brazeau is the wrong person for the job, a feeling that is echoed by the other ex-volunteers interviewed by Your Local Journal. "As soon as you question him, as soon as you ask anything, you become persona non grata and you're out."
Despite her negative comments about Brazeau's management, this volunteer feels there is no substance to the allegations of misappropriation of funds. "I've heard all the stories. I don't personally see where all this money (that was allegedly stolen) comes from, because if you have to pay $10,000 a month (for rent and utilities), plus having to pay a vet, where was all that money that he could have stolen?"
"I did not see animal cruelty, I only saw animals being kept there too long. I never saw any animal suffering horribly. They had the ringworm problem, but that's just one of those things they were not equipped to handle. It was way too much for a small SPCA like that."
Despite the people who stand against SPCA Ouest, support keeps coming in for the struggling shelter. Over 1,000 people donated during the most recent GoFundMe campaign.
As of May 30, there were still animals barking from inside the building when we rang the bell, but no one came to answer the door.
On May 31, Remi Brazeau told a YLJ staffer that the organization would be moving soon but could not provide an exact location. He said interim operations are continuing at 1763 Chemin Sainte-Angélique in Saint-Lazare.
“Same people, same owners, same everything.”
Lauren Mitchell and James Armstrong contributed to this article.