The board that oversees the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) will hold a meeting to determine the future of its president.
“In the coming weeks, the membership will be convening a special meeting to determine the continuance of Francyne Joe as President,” said NWAC CEO Lynne Groulx.
“I respect this democratic process and whatever decision the members make.”
The tensions between Joe and Groulx went public last week when it was reported by CBC that police were called to NWAC’s Ottawa office.
In an email to APTN News, NWAC said Joe has been banned from the office.
“On April 15, Lynne Groulx, CEO of the Native Women’s Association of NWAC and former human rights lawyer, wrote to members of NWAC’s executive council to outline concerns she has regarding the inappropriate behavior of NWAC President Francyne Joe in the workplace,” said the statement.
“This morning (April 17, 2019) Ms. Joe defied that motion and appeared at the NWAC offices demonstrating the same behavior that Ms. Groulx alleged in her letter. CEO Groulx felt threatened by the actions of the President and the Ottawa police services were called.”
The letter does not say what actions Joe had taken to threaten Groulx.
“While I cannot discuss the details, I can say there is tension in the relationship between Francyne Joe and myself,” Groulx said in an email to APTN. “In spite of every effort I have made to try and resolve these issues – including an intervention from our Elders in a healing circle.
“The matter is now before the Board, which continues to support me in the administration of the organization.”
(Police were called to NWAC’s downtown Ottawa office on April 17)
When contacted by APTN, Joe declined to comment.
But employees at NWAC have been speaking out about the issues inside the Ottawa office.
Several sources who spoke to APTN on condition of anonymity because they fear for their jobs, say major changes are needed if the organization hopes to fulfill the vision of helping Indigenous women across the country.
They say people running the organization are ignoring staffing issues, and turning a blind eye to problems in the workplace.
“Cleary staff are in critical distress,” one of the sources told APTN.
They decided to speak after two human resource staff members at NWAC quit April 19 because of concerns over ongoing issues that they spelled out in a letter and presented to the organization’s lawyer.
They say the human resources team asked that power at the top of the organization be “decentralized.”
The issue of how the staff at NWAC is managed is at the heart of a letter written by John Lymer, and human resources specialist Christele Goupy, and obtained by APTN.
“Please find below a letter detailing the multiple concerns we as the Human Resources team here at NWAC have regarding the functioning of this organization, how it is operated, and, most importantly, the behavior of the CEO,” the letter starts.
(NWAC CEO Lynne Groulx says a lack of stable federal funding “creates uncertainty and stress on our staff.”)
Lymer and Goupy outline several concerns with how the top executives run NWAC and lay out several examples such as hiring and salaries.
“The HR team in general has been shut out of HR Strategy meetings with the ED/CEO, people have been hired into positions that they did not apply for with salaries outside of any reasonable parameter for the organization, with no input or knowledge from HR,” the letter said.
“Also, random, and seemingly arbitrary salary increases have been provided to select staff members with zero input from HR. This is completely unacceptable.”
Lymer and Goupy sent the letter April 16, with several demands on the changes they want to see at the top of the organization.
The letter is addressed to Steven Pink, director of legal services for NWAC but shared throughout the office according to the sources APTN spoke with.
“When 10 percent of the staff go on STD (short term disability), and cite the toxic work environment as a contributing factor, which is then completely denied by the CEO, that is not okay,” the letter said.
Lymer and Goupy are also demanding that Groulx’s powers be restricted.
“Impose very stringent limits on the power and operations of the CEO and her office,” said the letter.
The letter also puts a deadline on the actions demanded.
“If we do not receive any communication from yourself within two working days about how this will be addressed and sustainably different from here-on-in, then we will seek other avenues to protect ourselves.”
When demands in the letter were denied, Lymer and Goupy quit on April 19 said the staff.
Neither Lymer nor Goupy responded to requests for interviews.
The four sources APTN spoke with say they are not confident in the leadership at NWAC.
“We need a check in balance on the amount of power that the CEO is exercising against their staff,” one of the sources said.
One former NWAC employee describes her work time with the organization as having no structure.
“Some of your assignments could be given away with no warning, no indication of why, you wouldn’t be spoken to, you wouldn’t be told why, things would just be moved and you would know why of course that you’ve ticked somebody off,” she said.
“I’ve been an employee crying in the washroom several times, the pressure would just get to you. I made a mistake, I can’t remember what it was, but it was something really trivial, I could just tell she was looking at me like I was a complete idiot and I’ve been there for seven to eight months at this point.
“And I was competent, everyone knew how competent I was, everyone knew how much I gave this organization, how much I worked hard. And it just crumbled internally and I said I’m going to lose my job, I’m an idiot. I mean she thinks I’m an idiot.”
The same concerns sources expressed to APTN are also reiterated in the letter from Lymer and Goupy.
“The current CEO operates without any checks or balances,” the letter stated. “Other ways that her dismissive manner can be seen in the way she arbitrarily fires people without any rationale provided.”
Sources said they fully stand by NWAC’s mission statement but feel the CEO is not operating from that guiding vision.
“We are not supporting the very women, we have positioned to support and advocate for,” one of the sources said.
(Native Women’s Association of Canada President Francyne Joe signed an accord with the Government of Canada Feb. 1, 2019 in Ottawa. APTN File)
The sources came forward after the police were called to the office on April 17 and escorted Joe out of the office.
NWAC staff all agreed that Joe has never disrupted the offices and that the issues are coming from Groulx.
“There’s no way employees would have any problems with Francyne, because all employees are barred access to Francyne,” said one of the sources.
In another document obtained by APTN, the staff of NWAC received a memorandum dated March 26, 2019, from Groulx outlining the rules for contacting Joe.
“All Communication for the President, including invitations and meeting requests or other business matters, must be sent via the Office of the CEO with Jaime Lavigne on CC,” said the letter.
“We can’t have any interaction with her [Francyne Joe] unless it’s completely vetted by the CEO [Lynne Groulx],” NWAC staff told APTN.
According to Groulx, “The protocol for communications to the President’s office has been in place for quite sometime. Communications protocols are common in the workplace and are necessary to ensure continuity and that nothing falls through the cracks. Requests for the President must be streamlined to maximize efficiency, organization and effectiveness, especially as NWAC continues to grow.”
The recent events reflect what NWAC employees say is a lack of structure in the workspace… “and the mental and physical health I would say are highly being impacted by the work environment here,” said one of the sources.
Founded in 1974, NWAC is an advocacy group based in Ottawa that aims to “enhance, promote, and foster the social, economic, cultural and political well-being of First Nations, Métis and Inuit women, girls and gender-diverse people within First Nations, Métis and Inuit Canadian societies,” according to the website.
In 2009, its Sisters in Spirit project, a five year program that started under the Paul Martin Liberal government, released a report that pushed the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls onto the national agenda.
Its research into more than 500 cases broke new ground for an issue that had been previously ignored. Its national database became the first of its kind in Canada in its scope and detail.
The program received recognition from human rights organizations like Amnesty International. Police agencies and provincial governments approached the project’s staff to share information and it pushed the RCMP to conduct its own research.
But in 2011, under the Stephen Harper Conservatives, the project was shelved and NWAC was no longer allowed to use the Sisters in Spirit name and any and all research was prohibited under new federal money.
The organization slipped into the background – including being excluded from talks on how to set up the current National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
(Francyne Joe, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and Indigenous women from the provinces and territories signed an accord in Ottawa on Feb. 1, 2019. APTN File)
It was revitalized on Feb. 1, 2019 when Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett signed an agreement with NWAC to “work with Canada to establish a reconciliation building process to decolonize, which includes meetings with the prime minister, ministers, deputy ministers responsible for policy development and key federal cabinet ministers.”
The three year program did not come with money. According to Bennett, that will be negotiated.
APTN asked the minister’s office about the issues at NWAC.
“Through the Accord, Canada and NWAC will continue to work closely to identify joint priorities and co-develop culturally appropriate policy and programs to include the distinct perspectives of Indigenous women, girls and gender-diverse people,” the statement said.
“We will not be commenting on the internal matters of the organization.”
In an email to APTN, Groulx said much of the stress in the office is caused by a lack of stable funding from the federal government.
“Understandably, this creates uncertainty and stress on our staff. As well, NWAC staff works with extremely difficult subject matter, which also takes its toll. Dealing with contentious subjects like missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the Inquiry, human trafficking, homelessness, poverty, forced sterilization and every form of violence against women contributes to a high level of emotional and mental stress,” the email said.
Lymer and Goupy however have a solution that was proposed to lawyer Stephen Pink.
“Whatever financial benefit the current CEO has brought to NWAC, she does not at all represent the values and mission of the organization,” the letter said. “She treats her employees very poorly, and very much like disposable merchandise if we are being honest.”
“I have never, ever worked in a place where the trust is so low.”
The allegations that have been made by the parties in dispute have not yet been proven before a court or other decision making body such as the NWAC Board or Membership.