Africa Centre executive director on leave amid investigation into alleged sexual harassment

The executive director of the Africa Centre in Edmonton has been placed on paid administrative leave while a third party investigates allegations of abuse and sexual harassment against him involving four women.

Tesfaye Ayalew's lawyer said his client denies the allegations

Tesfaye Ayalew, the long-serving executive director of the Africa Centre in Edmonton, has been placed on paid administrative leave following allegations of abuse and sexual harassment. (Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations)

The executive director of the Africa Centre in Edmonton has been placed on paid administrative leave while a third party investigates allegations of abuse and sexual harassment against him.

Tesfaye Ayalew went on leave Friday, the same day that lawyer Arman Chak began looking into the allegations, John Gaye, chair of the Africa Centre's board of directors, told CBC News Sunday.

The Africa Centre helps African immigrant and refugee families deal with the hurdles associated with integrating into Canadian society.

The Centre's board of directors was alerted to the allegations against Ayalew on Dec. 21, Gaye said, when an employee sent her resignation letter to the board and other staff members.

"The circumstances surrounding her resignation are based on abuse and sexual harassment," Gaye said. "In the letter, she indicated there were others that have been impacted similarly."

The Africa Centre later received a letter from community leaders, which "alluded to three other women" in addition to the employee, Gaye said. 

Ayalew denies allegations

Ayalew's lawyer, David McCalla said his client denies the allegations. 

"Mr. Ayalew denies the allegations, which he believes are now part of a different agenda, and looks forward to the opportunity to clear his name in a fair and open process," McCalla said in an emailed statement to CBC News. "Mr. Ayalew is concerned as well about the potential for damage to the reputation of the Africa Centre, to which he has given the last nine years of his life."

Gaye said the employee made a formal complaint on Dec. 27. The next day, the board of directors held an emergency meeting and decided to have a third-party investigation.

In Ayalew's absence while Chak investigates, Gaye said the board of directors has appointed Diane Conway, previously employed as the Africa Centre's senior program manager, as the interim executive director.

Chak's services have been retained for one month. 

"At the completion of the investigation, the board will make a decision and that will be communicated to the public and the community as well," Gaye said.

Board encourages reporting of incidents

Gaye said the board of directors will meet with Africa Centre staff on Monday, informing them that measures have been put in place to ensure they can report "any incident that may resemble any form of abuse or harassment."

The board of directors also wants to update the community, Gaye said, noting the meeting scheduled for Feb. 17 may be moved up "because of the current situation."

"We certainly encourage people, any of our staff, or anyone who has come in contact with the Africa Centre in the field, if anything like this has happened to them, we encourage them to come out," Gaye said. 

"The issue's under investigation now, so it isn't dependent on what he said or what she said, but the facts that will be reported from the investigation," Gaye said. 

Gaye said the Africa Centre is continuing normal operations.

"We have our programs and services still going ahead," he said. "And the board of directors is on top of this and we're going to ensure that the process is free and fair and that we take the appropriate action based on the report of the investigation."