Non-profit founded by Balarama Holness faced wave of resignations, volunteers blame his leadership

Former volunteers with Montreal in Action, a non-profit group founded by mayoral candidate Balarama Holness, say working for him was chaotic and dysfunctional. They say they don't believe he's qualified to become Montreal's next mayor.

Holness blames problems on volunteers who resigned

Balarama Holness founded the non-profit group, Montreal in Action, in 2018 to advocate for social justice. Based on their experience, former volunteers say Holness is not qualified to become Montreal's next mayor. (Simon Martel/CBC)

Nearly the entire board and executive team of a non-profit group founded by Balarama Holness resigned in November and December of last year, citing a chaotic and dysfunctional environment, CBC News has learned.

Holness, who is running for mayor as the leader of Mouvement Montréal, founded Montreal in Action, a social justice organization. In 2018, the group collected more than 22,000 petition signatures, forcing a city-wide public consultation on systemic racism.

The petition and the public consultation raised Holness's profile, helping cement his reputation as a social justice advocate, which is a key part of his municipal election campaign. 

However, former members of the group who reached out to CBC News said working for the organization was so chaotic, they don't believe Holness is qualified to become Montreal's next mayor.

Holness is defending his track record and said he should have done a better job vetting the people he hired at the time. But now he says the organization is stronger than ever.

"I put the most trustworthy people on the board that I know here in Montreal that are community organizers, community workers," Holness said. 

"[Now], the board thrives, the organization thrives."

Holness described the wave of resignations as a "mutual decision."

Members felt ignored, undermined by Holness

Between November and December 2020, five members of Montreal in Action's board and executive, the core leadership team at the time other than Holness, resigned.

Shalaka Shah was one of them. 

Sitting on the executive, she says she soon realized the organization had no bylaws, no defined leadership roles and Holness was making unilateral decisions. She says she tried to change that.

"All of my attempts at making the decisions more fair and democratic were completely ignored or were shut down," she said.

Shalaka Shah was eager to volunteer with Montreal in Action in 2020. She helped put together grant applications for the group. According to her, she quit volunteering due to the lack of leadership from Balarama Holness. (Ainslie MacLellan/CBC News)

As of September 2020, Montreal in Action still didn't have any bylaws, and Shah said she needed to submit a grant application under a tight deadline at Holness's request.

She said the lack of direction from the group's leader left her and another board member scrambling.

"[He] sent me a template of another non-profit's bylaws and he said, 'let's just use these and then we'll change them later,'" Shah said.

She decided to leave the group in December 2020. She claims Holness unilaterally changed the group's activities program for Black History Month, which she says volunteers had spent weeks mapping out.

"None of it was going to look like what it had initially looked like," she said.

"And that was why I resigned. Because I thought to myself [that] I'm not going to be spending my time in this organization."

Holness, though, says the program proposed by the volunteers was "a quality of service that was below what I deemed to the standard of Montreal in Action."

CBC News also spoke with another volunteer, Catherine Diallo, who says she also felt unappreciated. Shortly after becoming a volunteer with the group, Diallo became the co-chair of the group's research and advocacy team. 

But in November of 2020, she stepped down.

She felt Holness did not properly consider her ideas. She described meetings where Holness appeared to be uninterested — or tuned people out entirely.

"He would just look at his phone for the entire executive team meeting," Diallo said.

"There were a lot of suggestions being made ... that were either not responded to or just flat out derailed."

For several months, Catherine Diallo was the co-chair Montreal in Action's research and advocacy team. (Ainslie MacLellan/CBC News)

Two former board members also cited a lack of structure within Montreal in Action when they resigned in December. CBC News obtained a resignation letter written by both members. Neither was willing to comment.

"We were never given voting rights, formal authority, nor decision-making responsibility beyond our roles on the executive team," it is noted in the resignation letter. 

Holness told CBC News he was the leader of the organization and made the decisions.

"You have that structure informally, but the buck stops with me," he said.

Holness threatens legal action

In April of this year, a former member of Montreal in Action made attempts to organize a meeting between current members and those who had left, to have a debrief on the issues.

According to emails obtained by CBC News, that idea was not met well by Holness.

"Any and all former members, STOP communicating with [Montreal in Action] members and spreading lies and rumours," he wrote.

"This is a first official notice, unless with a mediator, so stop the misrepresentations, falsehoods and inaccuries [sic] about [Montreal in Action]. Please just leave in peace and don't contact us."

The meeting never took place, and for some, Holness's mention that his message was a "first official notice" was seen as a legal threat.

"When he had the chance to put his money where his mouth was, when he had the chance to listen to people who are marginalized, who do not get listened to, he shut us down. He literally stopped the conversation from happening," said Shah.

Holness confirmed that his message was in fact a legal threat.

Holness defends track record

In an interview with CBC News, Holness defended himself and the work of his organization, saying the problems lay with those who resigned.

"I take full responsibility for that initial error," Holness says of hiring the board and executive members.

"It was very clear that it was being mismanaged," he said. "They said ciao and I said ciao."

According to him, he's only met the former executives and board members once — or never in some cases — and he deferred too much control over the organization to them.

"That's atrocious, let's be honest, that's a sign of desperation," Holness said, when asked what his hiring of people whom he did not know revealed about his leadership at the time. 

Holness said the membership of his organization ballooned last year from about 10 members to 200. On a personal and professional level, he said he was very busy.

"[I] have seven classes at McGill law, I am a new father. I have a one-year-old at home. I am preparing to go to a bar school or run for mayor of Montreal, and you have a lot on your plate," he said.

"You hope that they're going to take the organization and it's going to thrive. And every time you go into a meeting, you're like, 'it's not thriving, it's not thriving, it's not thriving.'"

Balarama Holness and his group, Montreal in Action, gathered more than 22,000 signatures in order to force a city-wide public consultation on systemic racism. The public consultation was held in 2019. (CBC)

Holness said the Black History Month project was ultimately a success, after he stepped in and got more involved.

Elvira Rwasamanzi, who was a board member from August of 2019 until November of last year, lauded Holness's leadership abilities, and described him as someone who empowered the non-profit group's younger members.

"He really pushed the young [members] to take part in the movement but also take ownership of the movement," Rwasamanzi said.

She said she wasn't aware of any internal conflicts, and only left Montreal in Action because she could no longer make time for it.

She also said she is proud to see Holness running for mayor.

Idil Issa agrees.

A friend of Holness since 2017, she helped gather signatures during the campaign to force the consultation on systemic racism. She is the co-founder of Mouvement Montréal and is running for city councillor in the Peter-McGill District.

She became a board member of Montreal in Action in December 2020, following the resignation of two other members. She was aware of the resignations but reiterated that she trusts Holness.

Holness running for mayor 'a really bad idea'

With the municipal elections looming, both Shah and Diallo said it was important for voters to know about what some people went through at Montreal in Action in order to see that Holness's public image does not, according to them, align with what they witnessed.

Shah noted that she thought she had moved past the situation, until she started receiving emails from Mouvement Montréal.

"Wait a minute, I did not sign up for this email. How am I receiving this email?" she asked. Diallo also received them.

Holness told CBC News he used the contact list from Montreal in Action to send emails for Mouvement.

According to Quebec's access to information commission, non-profits are not allowed to transfer personal information about employees or clients to a third party, except in very specific cases. Those cases do not include giving email lists to a political party so that it can solicit donations and recruit volunteers. 

Balarama Holness is running to become the mayor of Montreal as leader of Mouvement Montréal. (Jérôme Labbé/Radio-Canada)

As far as Shah is concerned, Holness should not be running for mayor.

"I think it's a really bad idea," Shah said. 

"Maybe one day, he'll be in a place where he would be a good leader but there's nothing that suggests to me right now that that would have changed."

Diallo said she wants to continue helping to fight against systemic racism and social injustice, adding that she'll be more careful regarding which organization she joins.

"I'm not happy to be here today [speaking about Holness]," she said.

"I would much rather be out there supporting the first person of colour running for mayor [of Montreal]. But, you know, being a person of colour is not enough. You also need to be a good candidate. And I don't think he is."