Anti-bullying advocate faces questions over tactics

A high-profile anti-bullying activist in New Brunswick is being criticized for the way he challenges institutions and organizations.

Bullying Canada co-founder defends handling of complaints

A high-profile anti-bullying activist in New Brunswick is being criticized for the way he challenges institutions and organizations.

A school superintendent says Rob Frenette was not realistic in demanding District 14 respond within hours to a complaint about bullying at a Woodstock school.

And NB Power says it has not been able to substantiate Frenette’s allegations of 400 to 500 bullying complaints at the Crown corporation.

Frenette is standing by his actions in both cases. He would not agree to an interview but sent CBC a prepared statement responding to the criticisms.

"I've been asked not to do any further interviews on these topics," he said about District 14, "as some are now escalated to the Minister of Education/Superintendent. As for NB Power, that file won't be discussed any further, unless a employee comes forward."

Frenette, a victim of bullying himself as a child, co-founded Bullying Canada in 2006. He was successful in pressuring the New Brunswick government to create an Anti-Bullying Day.

Last year, he was named a member of the Order of New Brunswick, the province’s highest recognition for community service.

The citation said he was honoured "for his tireless devotion to and passionate commitment to ending the spectre of bullying in our province and all across Canada."

Former premier Shawn Graham praised Frenette as "a strong voice against bullying and a role model" and current premier David Alward has also lauded his efforts.

Bullying Canada has been a registered charity since last August and must file its annual report with the Canada Revenue Agency by September.

Frenette says he does not earn a salary from the organization.

Disputed numbers

Frenette says he first contacted NB Power last September. He went public in December, then brought it up again in April.

In the legislature, a Liberal MLA, Brian Kenny, repeated Frenette’s claim that Bullying Canada had received 400 to 500 complaints of bullying from employees of the utility.

But NB Power says it has been unable to verify those numbers.

"What we need in order to investigate these and follow through is to know locations, know particulars, know names of the people involved, and that's been one of the challenges that we have when we've been dealing with Bullying Canada," says Lori Clark, the head of human resources at the utility.

"We've not been able to get the information that would allow us to deal with the situations."

Clark says she was surprised by the number.

"It's not realistic in terms of what we're dealing with," she says.

"There's less than 10 cases [at the moment]. In the single digits, in fact."

Ross Galbraith, the manager for the union representing most NB Power employees, is also skeptical of the number.

"I've not seen any volume of complaints like that, four or 500," says Galbraith, who adds that his members are never reticent about letting him know when they have a problem.

"It's just a very, very high number. It's an unbelievably high number for me."

He says eight to 10 complaints is the number in a normal year and they range from outright bullying to harassment to anything else related to an employee’s discomfort in the workplace.

Galbraith says when he heard Frenette’s number, "I met with my staff, and met with our executive board members, and I asked, 'Is there something going on here?' Because I'm not seeing an increase. It's about steady—the same type of thing you would get every year."

Frenette said in an e-mail on June 4 the number is "a log of the amount of phone calls and emails we received between September of last year and April of this year.  We still as of today are receiving calls from NB Power staff about concerns."

In an earlier e-mail response on May 24, Frenette said Bullying Canada has decided to direct any NB Power employees to take their complaints to their union or the corporation’s ombudsman.

"Our charity’s information and resources are targeted at youth / parents," he said.

"Our work was never really in to the workplace.

He said he took that decision in light of a fight he is having with the utility over several Right to Information requests he made. Frenette released portions of the material he received, showing that communications officials at the utility were upset about his description of the bullying complaints.

He is also appealing NB Power’s refusal to release any documents under the Right to Information Act that name him or Bullying Canada.

"NB Power has made it clear that they are not interested in the assistance we could offer them," he added in the e-mail.

"We offered company-wide workshops etc but they declined."

Frenette says he offered the workshop at no charge, though Bullying Canada normally charges $500 per session.

Kathleen Duguay, a NB Power spokeswoman, says Frenette offered both for-fee and no-fee workshops, but "at that time NB Power had already engaged in workshop development and/or was delivering workshop/awareness session with employees."

Superintendent says release was damaging

The other organization pushing back against Frenette’s tactics is District 14, the school district covering most of the St. John River Valley.

The district will no longer exist after this week as a result of a provincial reorganization of districts.

In May, Theresa Blackburn, a Woodstock town councillor and community college instructor, criticized Frenette in a newspaper column for how he handled a bullying complaint at Woodstock Middle School.

Frenette had issued a press release April 29 accusing administrators at the school of not acting on a case of bullying.

He issued the release around noon, after contacting the school early that morning to advise them he was going public.

Blackburn says that wasn’t nearly enough time for a busy principal or superintendent to respond.

"In one fell swoop, I felt that Bullying Canada had ruined the reputation of an administration that had worked so hard for the last three or four years," says Blackburn, who dealt with the same school officials when her son was bullied.

She says the officials did everything right in her son’s case, but it wasn’t quick, as Frenette seemed to be demanding in the new case.

"My son's issues were not resolved in five days. When you're dealing with people, it's complex. It's really complex. And it takes more than just a couple of emails and the demand of action," she says.

"Mediation has to take place. There are meetings that have to take place. Press releases aren't going to solve what's going on."

John Tingley, the acting district 14 superintendent, says he was visiting schools in the northern part of the district that morning, and it was unfair of Frenette to expect a response within a few hours.

"The relationship is more difficult now between the school and the parent" as a result of Frenette’s press release, Tingley said.

Frenette says he only issued the release because the family asked for it.

"That’s a practice that we’ve always had in place," he said in an e-mail statement.

"We as an organization did not make the decision to issue the media release."

He says in previous cases, the school principal has not returned his calls, and has made it clear in this case "that she would not be interested in working with us on this matter."

He says officials at the Department of Education are now involved and until they respond to him, he won’t comment further on the case.