Nfld. & Labrador

Community groups complained to SJSWC about Jenny Wright before she resigned

Four months before Jenny Wright tendered her resignation as executive director of the St. John's Status of Women Council, a strongly worded letter was written to the council's chair.

'It’s clear my moving on was the intent of the signatories,' former executive director says

Jenny Wright stepped down as the executive director of the St. John's Status of Women Council in March, after five years with the organization. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

The leaders of several community groups and organizations expressed their "deep and growing concern about the damaged relationships" between their organizations and the St. John's Status of Women Council, four months before its executive director, Jenny Wright, resigned.

The letter was sent to council chair Mary Shortall and is dated Nov. 9, 2018. CBC News obtained a leaked copy.

It was signed by top officials with the N.L. Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre, the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women, the Public Legal Information Association of Newfoundland, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, Thrive, Violence Prevention Avalon East, the YWCA St. John's and Georgina McGrath, a violence survivor and prevention advocate. 

They wrote that the council's then-executive director "has acted in a manner that has created a divide within the community sector that has diminished opportunities for collaboration and partnerships, thereby losing valuable opportunities to work together to benefit vulnerable people in our province."

A letter obtained by CBC News shows multiple community organizations, including the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, were concerned over their strained relationship with the council. (Ariana Kelland/CBC)

They did, however, express hope that the damaged relationships could be repaired, but that would require "honesty" and "frankness."

The group requested an in-camera meeting with board members only.

"This private meeting will begin the important but difficult work of restoring the relationship between SJSWC and other members of the community and non-profit sector in our province."

CBC News attempted to contact everyone who signed the letter.

Those reached by phone or email declined comment. It's unclear what their specific concerns were, or if those relationships have since improved.

Wright left SJSWC in March

Wright, who held the position of executive director for five years, tendered her resignation in late March, indicating she would remain committed to being a strong advocate for women. 

At the time, neither she nor Shortall referenced any internal conflict.

In Twitter messages sent to CBC News this week, Wright said she became aware of the letter in November.

But she said it is now "old news," and she has moved on with a number of new projects and work opportunities. 

"At times when you're a feminist and advocate your position can be an inconvenience to other feminists, organizations, police and government," she said.

"You will have to speak to them about how they chose to address that inconvenience."

Mary Shortall is chair of the St. John's Status of Women Council and president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

In an email, Shortall indicated she was not available for an interview and repeated her earlier statements about Wright's departure.

"The board reiterates our initial comments that Jenny has been an instrumental and critical voice in representing the interests of women in St. John's and the province," Shortall wrote.

"We are pleased that she will continue to advocate for women and we wish her the best as she moves on to other opportunities."

Moving on, wishing them well

Asked if the letter had anything to do with her resignation, Wright said she left for many reasons, and remains "very proud" of the work she did over the course of five years.

"Ironically, it's clear my moving on was the intent of the signatories. In some ways being free from a specific organization, even one as fierce as SJSWC, allows me to be a stronger and louder advocate. And allows me to pursue new avenues of my work."

Officials at Confederation Building were aware of the dispute. The minister responsible for the Women's Policy Office was briefed on Nov. 14, 2018. 

CBC News obtained that internal government document through access to information. 

Though heavily redacted — the entire summary and anticipated questions were removed — the key message for the minister included, "The board of directors of the St. John's Status of Women Council is an experienced competent group [redacted]."

It added: "We support the good work being done by all groups involved and hope the matter is resolved promptly."

Wright is currently teaching a Women in Politics course in Memorial University's Political Science Department and is working on a publication of feminist essays.

She is also a panelist with the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability — a centre which, in part, works to prevent gender-based violence and death — and has a podcast with MUN professor Amanda Bittner.

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Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's.