Committee formed to investigate refugee and immigrant resettlement society in Prince George, B.C.

Members of the Immigrant and Multicultural Services Society in Prince George, B.C., voted to investigate the operations of the society after their Executive Director refused to provide a report at their AGM.

Board, executive director and public clash at annual general meeting

IMSS executive director Baljit Sethi (far left) said she disagrees with board president Moustafa Mohamed (speaking) that it is time for her to retire. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Members of the Immigrant and Multicultural Services Society in Prince George, B.C., have voted to investigate the society's operations during a contentious annual general meeting Saturday.

The publicly-funded organization provides resettlement and support services for immigrants and refugees in central B.C.

Problems started when executive director Baljit Sethi, who founded IMSS forty years ago, refused to report on the society's operations.

"There is a report in the package," she said. "But there are certain issues that I didn't want to touch upon."

Sethi, 83, said she didn't want to report on details of the society's operations because when she came to to pick up a cheque during a recent leave of absence, she found a letter from the board asking her to retire when the leave was over.

"I do not agree with that," she said. "It has not been discussed with me."

Roughly sixty people attended a contentious annual general meeting for Prince George's Immigrant and Multicultural Services Society. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Retirement dispute

"Can you speak to the status of the operations of the organization in terms of what's happening with the daycare, what's happening with the teaching?" asked member-at-large Travis Stringer.

"I don't think that I would like to share in front of everybody," Sethi replied.

Stringer then proposed a committee be formed to investigate the operations of IMSS.

Speaking afterward, society president Moustafa Mohamed said discussions about Sethi's retirement have been ongoing for more than two years and he was surprised by her statements.

"We recognize that she is the one who established this organization and as such we value her effort and energy," he said. 

He didn't want to go into detail but said Sethi's health and complaints from employees are factors in asking her step down.

"This is the time to retire," he said.

Memberships denied

Sethi wasn't the only source of controversy.

Several people said they had been denied membership in the society and questioned why. 

Mohamed said it stemmed from a conflict between Sethi and two employees whose contracts were ultimately terminated. 

Baljit Sethi speaking with Liberal MLAs Mike Morris and Shirley Bond after IMSS received $20,000 for anti-racism programming last year. IMSS is funded by several federal and provincial government bodies. (B.C. Government Caucus Communications)

He said soon after there was a "wave" of people signing up to become new members.

The board worried "revenge" may be taken on the organization and so it denied new member applications.

Mohamed compared IMSS to a sick patient, saying sometimes visitors need to be restricted in order to keep the patient healthy, and questioned why there was a sudden interest in the society.

"It's called democracy," Stringer replied. "The only way we can make change is with our vote. Wouldn't all politicians love it if they could restrict who can vote?"

Stringer also asked why a board member had temporarily stepped down to work for IMSS before being reinstated to the board.

Bylaws prohibit board members from financial benefit.

"The board did it in close consultation with lawyers," Mohamed said. "That was done with high precision of professionalism."

Public investigation

Ultimately, three members-at-large and two members of the public formed a committee to investigate any "operational irregularities" within IMSS.

Society member Sandy Long said he worries IMSS is "in crisis." "This group is nearly broken," he said. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Committee member Sandy Long said he worries an important public organization is in crisis.

"It's in my best interest and yours that [IMSS] succeed," he said, pointing to their recent work helping resettle Syrian refugees in northern British Columbia.

"It's really important to have the kind of back-up that IMSS provides."

Mohamed said he welcomed the committee, confident they would find good reasons for the decisions the board has made.

"I would love them to do their work and find out why we took the decisions."

Andrew Kurjata on Twitter: @akurjata.


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