'I was stunned': Yellowknife reacts to sudden firing of John Howard Society director
'All I know is that the board said they would like to move... in a new direction, and I wasn’t part of that'
The future of Yellowknife's John Howard Society is uncertain after the organization's long-time executive director and community justice co-ordinator — and sole employee — was let go unexpectedly.
"All I know is that the board said they would like to move John Howard Society in a new direction, and I wasn't part of that direction," said Lydia Bardak, who learned of her immediate dismissal in a letter from the board on Nov. 14.
"There was a board member present [at the Society] that day to ensure that I left the building and turned over my keys."
According to Bardak, the board has not given her a definitive reason for the firing, but she suspects it could be because she's "more people-work oriented than paperwork-oriented.
"I admit and fully own that I can be late with filing reports or doing paperwork, and I think maybe that's just not satisfactory anymore."
Bardak said "several years ago due to my late reporting, we did lose our status as a charitable organization," but added that the organization has now filed all appropriate paperwork with The Canada Revenue Agency and is "on track to regain it."
A labour of love
Yellowknife's John Howard Society is part of a network of 65 offices across Canada whose mission is to provide various kinds of rehabilitative and reintegrative services to people who have come into contact with the criminal justice system.
Bardak started with the Yellowknife office 12 years ago and "enjoyed it too much to ever think about stepping away."
Aside from offering advice and assistance to people who need it, the Yellowknife office runs the city's Community Justice Committee for the territorial government's Department of Justice.
The Committee works with the RCMP or Crown to divert selected cases away from the traditional court system. When a case is diverted, the offender does not receive a criminal record, and the committee works with all persons involved to create alternative resolutions such as counselling, restitution or letters of apology.
Bardak is worried about what the board's decision will mean not only for John Howard's clients, but also for the future of the committee. "I'd hate to see someone go through court and possibly get a conviction and a criminal record for something like shoplifting, or some minor assault."
Bard Carlson, the chair of Yellowknife's John Howard Society's board, refused to comment on Bardak's termination or the future of the organization.
He said the board has hired one staff member to periodically check on the office, but added there is no set schedule.
He would not say if and when the office would reopen, or whether it would continue to operate the Community Justice Committee.
'I was stunned'
Bardak isn't the only person worried about the impact of the board's decision.
"To say that I was stunned is putting it mildly," said fellow Community Justice Committee member and well-known social justice advocate Lynn Brooks.
"I have no idea what these people are thinking, and I really don't think they know what they've done, what they've deprived the community of. It's staggering."
Brooks said the Community Justice Committee has "kept a huge number of people out of the system," largely "because Lydia works with them extensively to keep them on track."
Brooks is refusing to serve on the committee without Bardak, and is hoping the board will shed light on the dismissal and the committee's future.
"I left a message at the John Howard for someone to call me [on Friday] and I still haven't heard back."
'It's just mind boggling'
Brooks' sentiments are being echoed by Yellowknife's legal community.
"My personal experience is that Lydia cares very deeply about the clients that she serves, at the John Howard generally, and the criminal diversion program more broadly," said defence lawyer Caroline Wawzonek.
"My understanding of late is that there is already a backlog of people appropriately screened to participate in diversion, so now to have that program put on to some kind of hiatus, I don't know if that serves anybody's interest," she added.
Yellowknife defence lawyer Peter Harte says he could not be more shocked by Bardak's departure.
"Lydia is an invaluable resource for people on the street who would otherwise be lost in the criminal justice system without the support that she provides.
"She reminds people of trial dates, in some cases she reminds people that they have outstanding charges, and some of the people she's working with are pretty low functioning."
Harte refers to Bardak as "Saint Lydia," and says her departure and the unclear status of the Community Justice Committee may mean too many people with minor convictions are going to fall through the cracks of the criminal justice system.
"Not to have a restorative justice process here, it's just mind boggling."
In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for the N.W.T.'s Department of Justice, which funds the John Howard Society to operate the Justice Committee, wrote the department is not "aware of any disruptions in service" and is looking "forward to continued collaboration."