Wabano Centre accused of mishandling funds, workplace harassment

The City of Ottawa is investigating complaints of harassment, bullying and improper use of funds inside the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health, which provides health and social services to Indigenous people in the capital.

'I am literally disgusted by the operation of this organization,' says former employee

Joanne Plummer recently left her job at the Wabano Centre. She brought her concerns about workplace harassment and the misuse of donor and taxpayer funds to the City of Ottawa because she said some client needs aren't being met. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

The City of Ottawa is investigating complaints of harassment, bullying and improper use of funds inside the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health, which provides health and social services to Indigenous people in the capital.

The complaints include verbal abuse in the workplace and that the centre handed out thousands of dollars in bonuses to employees while also failing to meet the needs of some clients.

Joanne Plummer, a former financial benefits worker at Wabano, brought her concerns to the city, one of the centre's main funders, because she said the centre is misusing taxpayer and donor funds.

"I am literally disgusted by the operation of this organization," said Plummer, who is a First Nation and Métis status woman belonging to both the Huronne Wendat Nation and Métis Autochtone de Maniwaki. 

The Wabano Centre describes itself as a "proud Indigenous organization dedicated to helping Indigenous people live the good life," but Plummer said in one instance she was denied a request to help a client in addictions treatment purchase a pair of shoes.

"That's where I decided — OK, this has to be reported. I don't think this is fair. I don't think it's right," she said.

CBC provided the Wabano Centre with a list of grievances from employees. Its executive director Allison Fisher declined to comment on the allegations but said she stands by the centre.

"I am confident of the integrity of Wabano's operations including human resources policies and procedures and financial and budget processes," she wrote in an email.

In a statement, Saide Sayah, the City of Ottawa's director of housing, confirmed the city is investigating but wouldn't comment further.

In an email from Sayah to Plummer obtained by CBC, he said the city will not be able to share findings publicly until the fall, at the earliest.

The Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health has been providing health and social services to Ottawa's Indigenous community for nearly two decades. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Bonus letters urge secrecy

CBC has seen copies of three bonus letters given to employees that ranged from $2,000 to $5,000. The letters included a line instructing employees not to divulge any matters relating to salary with other employees.

Financial statements from 2018 and 2019 show the Wabano Centre is funded primarily by federal, provincial and municipal grants and contributions.

The Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care also provides funding for the organization's health centre and donations are the third top driver of revenue.

Both statements showed Wabano in good financial standing and concluded the centre "ended in accordance with Canadian accounting standards for not-for-profit organizations."

Neither statements disclose the exact amount given by the City of Ottawa, but city data showed that between 2018 and 2020 Wabano received more than $4 million in city funding. In 2020, the centre received nearly $2.5 million which included COVID-19 funding.

Fisher said the centre remained open during the pandemic and staff worked to provide an Indigenous-specific pandemic response including 26,000 wellness checks.

Amanda Earle, an employee at the Wabano Centre, is concerned with how the non-profit is handling its finances and treating employees. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Bonuses in non-profits rare, says expert

It isn't illegal for non-profits to hand out bonuses, but Kunle Akingbola, a professor specializing in non-profit organizations at Lakehead University, said it is very rare because of the "optics."

"Essentially the top one is the perception of the public, the perception of the funders, government, foundations, people who are donating to the sector," Akingbola said.

Amanda Earle, an Inuk woman from Labrador and a housing outreach worker at Wabano, said the organization fails to make the criteria for bonuses clear to employees.

Earle said she received a bonus of $2,000 last year but that others in her department received bonuses at the beginning of this fiscal year. She wonders why that money isn't going to clients first.

"We have absolutely no room for new clients to get the stipend. There's people who've been in rental arrears and they can't get that help I don't understand how if we're so low on funds, how are they able to give that money out?" Earle said.

The Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health is located along Montreal Road in Ottawa. Its website describes the centre as a “proud Indigenous organization dedicated to helping Indigenous people live the good life." (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Wabano 'intense' and 'toxic' workplace

The bonuses are just one of a myriad of problems, according to Plummer, Earle and five other past and present employees CBC spoke to for this story.

Plummer recently quit her job after she said management refused to approve two unpaid days off, the last straw after what she describes as months of verbal harassment and intimidation from a colleague in her department.

She reported the harassment to Wabano's executive director and filed a complaint with the Ontario Labour Relations Board.

CBC also spoke to another employee who said while she worked there she was happy with how a harassment complaint was handled by management.

Earle, who is currently on leave, has worked in various departments at Wabano for the past three years and described the workplace as "intense" and "toxic."

"Yes, we're an Indigenous organization. And, yes, we're for our community. But we as workers are part of that community and we too deserve the same rights and the same good treatment that we give our community members," Earle said.

Earle described one situation where she became the target of vicious rumours after coming forward with concerns that a co-worker was mishandling gift cards intended for clients.

"The favouritism is rampant in there and with that specific co-worker, she is always protected," Earle said, alleging it is because that co-worker is related to a boss.

In an email, Tina Slauenwhite, Wabano's director of housing, said because the Indigenous community in Ottawa is quite small, "it is completely unsurprising that relatives of staff are sometimes hired."

Slauenwhite said there is a structure in place to ensure no one is managed directly by a relative.

This former Wabano employee said she quit her job after she was screamed at by a coworker. (CBC News)

Employee says she was screamed at while working

Another Wabano employee said she was verbally assaulted by that same co-worker in the housing department which ultimately led to her quitting her job. CBC is not identifying this employee because she is worried speaking out could affect future employment.

The Cree woman said she had a disagreement with her co-worker about releasing personal information and was at her desk when she heard someone storming up from behind. The woman said her co-worker leaned down and started screaming in her ear.

"I felt attacked and like I said, I was in shock, I've never had anyone come up to me in that manner," she said.

She said she contacted Wabano's human resources department but decided because of what she had heard it wasn't worth the fight. The following Monday she resigned.

Both Earle and Plummer are calling for an external investigation by the Ministry of Labour and a full audit.

"I hope that the truth finally comes out and that it can finally be rectified and that Wabano can finally start to heal because it really needs to heal," Earle said.