APTN National News
An Indigenous scholar alleges the Conference Board of Canada operates under a “toxic work environment” which created a high “turnover” of employees at the think tank, according to a document filed as part of a lawsuit in Ontario.
The lawsuit was filed on Sept. 15 by Jennifer Dalton, currently a visiting researcher at the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Canadian and Aboriginal studies. The lawsuit alleges Dalton was wrongfully fired from the think tank, which is one of the most prominent organizations of its kind in Canada.
Dalton, who is seeking at least $175,000 in damages, worked in a department headed by a Conference Board of Canada vice-president named Michael Bloom.
Bloom is currently under an internal investigation by an external ethics officer after he was secretly recorded by a former employee, who is an Algonquin man, making racialized generalizations about Indigenous peoples, Asians and people from the Caribbean community.
He is currently on a leave of absence.
Dalton, who moved to Ottawa from Toronto with her ailing mother, worked for the think tank from April 11 to Aug. 29 when she was suddenly fired over the use of a corporate credit card.
Dalton, who is of Mohawk, Innu and Metis heritage, reported directly to Doug Watt, a director in the think tank, who works essentially as the deputy to Bloom, who is vice-president for industry and business strategy.
Watt faced a human resources investigation over the summer triggered by multiple complaints alleging abusive behaviour toward employees, APTN National News has learned. Watt received a warning as a result of the investigation.
According to Dalton’s court filing with the Ontario Superior Court, she faced a chaotic and disorganized workplace when she entered the Conference Board.
“(Dalton) discovered there was a very high turnover of employees with the Board as a result of the negative, toxic work environment,” according to the statement of claim. “(Dalton) was directed to take over two projects from an employee who had recently announced his departure. The projects were in disarray.”
Dalton alleges she was assigned tasks that had nothing to do with her areas of expertise, which focused on Indigenous peoples and the justice system.
The statement of claim states that Watt gave her an interim performance review in June that concluded she had a “bright future with the Board.”
She was fired on Aug. 29 after a series of meetings on the use of her American Express corporate credit with had run up a $6,700 bill.
The statement of claim states Dalton had agreed to pay the balance with payroll deductions and vacation pay. Dalton was told she was facing a possible suspension before being dismissed, according to the statement of claim. Three days before she was fired, Dalton suffered a migraine headache which forced her to stay home.
The statement of claim alleges that Dalton faced “harassment and bullying” from Barb Hogberg, the vice-president of human resources, during the process.
Dalton alleges she raised this issue with Bloom and Watt. After this complaint, Hogberg immediately suspended Dalton without pay and revoked her access to the building and computer network, according to the statement of claim.
The Conference Board of Canada’s statement of defence in the case denies Dalton’s allegations about the workplace environment in the think tank. The statement of defence also alleges Dalton was initially informed by American Express that the corporate credit card was only for business expenses.
The document alleges Dalton used the corporate credit card for expenses at Aldo, Nordstrom, Chateau Laurier and a dinner in Chelsea, Que. The Conference Board of Canada states in the document it proposed paying off the credit card debt and allow Dalton to repay the sum with payroll deductions.
“Dalton flatly refused this offer, claiming she could not afford such a deduction from her pay,” said the statement of defence.
The statement of defence said the Conference Board refused Dalton’s proposal to pay off the credit card through her vacation pay.
“The Board declined the arrangement, as it believes vacation time is vital to employee health and did not want Dalton working many months without time off,” said the statement of defence.
None of the allegations contained in any of the documents filed as part of this lawsuit have been proven by a court of law.
Dalton declined comment because she is involved in ongoing legal action.
The Conference Board of Canada said in a statement the investigation of Bloom is “underway and proceeding as expeditiously as possible.”
The statement said the Conference Board would not comment on any circumstances “regarding individual employees” or active lawsuits.
“Your questions involve personal and confidential matters which can’t be discussed in the media,” said the statement.
Dalton—whose research has delved into the high rates of Indigenous inmates in prison, the impact of the Supreme Court’s Gladue decision and applying Indigenous knowledge to the justice system—worked in the same department as Veldon Coburn, an Algonquin academic tasked with working on a Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) contract to update a training program with exercises aimed at Indigenous inmates.
Coburn, who also left the Conference Board, secretly recorded Bloom during a Sept. 13 meeting discussing concerns over the objectives of CSC with the program update. Coburn told Bloom he was uncomfortable with CSC’s approach which he viewed amounted to “tokenism” because officials wanted beads and moccasins used in the examples.
CSC wanted to update its training exercises based on a workshop run by its corporate arm, CORCAN, which produces moccasins, drums and key chains made by inmates and marketed as hand-made Indigenous items to stores in Ontario for resale.
Bloom disagreed with Coburn, according to the recording, and told him people wanted to “see themselves” in the program exercises.
“I think the case for Indigenous people, you see more often, at least from what I read, people who will be silent, you know. Yes, you the person who punched somebody, but the silence thing is an issue,” Bloom told Coburn, according to the recording.
Bloom also told Coburn, Asians don’t know how to say “no” and that most of the people in Toronto jails are from the Caribbean community.
Coburn said he recorded the conversation because of Bloom’s statements in a previous meeting where the vice-president questioned Indigenous peoples’ work ethic.
During the recording, Coburn attempted to bring up Bloom’s past statement on work ethic by referring to labour force research data that contradicted the assertion. Coburn faced a dismissive retort from the vice-president.
“We don’t have time to look at the data, so if there is something that is not clear, don’t do it, we don’t have any time. This thing has blown its budget beyond belief,” said Bloom, in the recording. “I don’t know anything about that one. I have no idea. It sounds to me it’s nothing where there is good evidence on it, just use real things.”
Coburn sent his concerns to Hogberg in emails, but he said the human resources head did little to deal with his concerns about Bloom’s “racially prejudiced” remarks.
“I am without words to describe how it feels when a non-Indigenous person lectures me on how I should feel and I must accept their denigrating view of Indigenous peoples, that I should not be offended by racist views of Indigenous peoples,” wrote Coburn, to Hogberg on Sept. 30, while he was off work on vacation. “My ancestry and heritage notwithstanding, the views expressed by Michael (Bloom) should not be held by anyone. They are the same, tired, stereotypical perspective of Indigenous peoples as inferior, the same ones used for decades to depict Indigenous peoples in a negative light, and they have no basis in fact.”
Hogberg did not address any of Coburn’s points in her response, which came a little over an hour later.
“Thanks for your note,” wrote Hogberg, adding that he could extend his vacation. “Veldon, I was pleased to read that you are getting some rest on this vacation.”
Prominent professor Hayden King, with Carleton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration, said Coburn faced a “classic” case of the type of willful ignorance on Indigenous issues and the racist and stereotypical views perpetuated by officials at the highest levels of corporate and political Canada.
“The head of a research think tank, supposedly privileging data and evidence, who relies on anecdotes and assumptions about the nature or culture of Indigenous peoples as passive or incompetent or whatever to shape his organization’s orientation,” said King. “All the data in the world wouldn’t matter. And I think this helps confirm that when industry and government speak of inclusion, they often do mean tokenism. They mean: ‘We seek to validate our status quo, thinly veiled assimilative agenda.’ And when Indigenous—or racialized people—refuse to acquiesce to this role or perspective, they are marginalized, excused, and belittled.”
Correctional Service of Canada refused to comment on whether the views of Indigenous peoples held by Bloom would taint the product delivered by the Conference Board of Canada to the federal prison agency.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s office also would not comment on the possible impact the views of the top think tank official handling the CSC contract at the think tank could have on the final product delivered to Ottawa.
Goodale’s office oversees CSC.
Federal Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers has repeatedly raised concerns about the “disturbing reality of Aboriginal overrepresentation in Canadian correctional populations.” Indigenous inmates account for 23 per cent of the total inmate population, yet Indigenous people comprise 3.8 per cent of the total population of Canada.
On any given day, there are about 3,500 Indigenous people in federal prisons, according to data released by Sapers’ office.