Mental health charity reeling amid resignations over suspicions about leader's alleged secret identity
Ex-staffers say they believe identity of woman behind youth charity is an alias for known vexatious litigant
An Ottawa charity focused on the well-being of Black, Indigenous and LGBTQ youth is in disarray after staff quit and speakers pulled out of a recent conference because they believe the group's leader has multiple aliases and a history of taking her enemies to court.
Maxine Adwella is known as the head of the National Collaboration for Youth Mental Health (NCYMH), which, according to its website, has spent nearly 20 years advocating for racially and culturally specific mental health services for young people.
However, a recent court judgment concluded that a woman named Maxine Adwella is actually an alias used by Althea Reyes, a woman with a criminal past who was declared a vexatious litigant in 2017 for repeatedly launching civil proceedings to "harass her foes," as the judge put it.
A CBC News investigation of Reyes reveals a remarkable backstory that's led young staff and volunteers to walk away from NCYMH. Some allege they've been subjected to smear campaigns and threatened with legal action for speaking out against the charity and its leader.
In doing so, they say, NCYMH is harming some of the same young people it claims to help.
WATCH | NCYMH employee describes repercussions she faced after speaking out:
"It's been very daunting on my mental health," said Kyrstin Dumont, 20, an Indigenous woman who worked briefly for the charity. "I've been repeatedly told that I'm going to be going to court with her, or that she's going to serve me with papers or come to my house to serve me with papers."
The NCYMH insists Adwella is not Reyes, but "a separate person with three pieces of government issued ID."
Questions sent to an email address belonging to Adwella received no reply from her, and the CBC was unable to reach Reyes through family members and former lawyers.
Emails sent to NCYMH were answered by a number of people, all of whom denied the various allegations about the charity's conduct and the identity of its leader.
Beauty queen with history of legal action
Althea Maxine Reyes, 54, has a long history with the courts.
In the early 1990s, the Daily News in Halifax covered the then-law student's trial after she was accused of forgery and fraud during her time with the Dalhousie Black Law Students' Association. The courtroom drama was intense, as Reyes suffered labour pains in court and gave birth just days before the jury acquitted her of the charges.
In 2011, Reyes drove over the foot of a woman who was trying to sue her. She was convicted of dangerous driving and failing to remain at the scene of an accident.
Reyes also has convictions for fabricating evidence and theft under $5,000.
Her list of lawsuits is even longer. In 1990, Reyes launched — then withdrew — a $400,000 lawsuit against the Miss Black Ontario pageant and its director in a dispute over prizes she says she was owed for winning the contest, according to The Canadian Press.
In 2017, after launching approximately 20 civil proceedings that were "designed to discomfort and harass her foes," Ontario Superior Court Justice Paul Perell declared Reyes a vexatious litigant, barring her from launching legal action without the approval of a judge.
But Reyes didn't stop using the courts, and in doing so a judge connected the dots between Adwella and Reyes.
In September 2019, a dog and ferret were discovered in a Toronto home "in distress and apparently abandoned," according to a court ruling. Their owner, Althea Reyes, was in provincial custody at the time and didn't show up for the appeal she had launched in a bid to win the pets back.
But, a few months later, a woman calling herself Maxine Adwella filed another appeal against the animals' removal, claiming they were therapy pets owned by NCYMH. The judge ruled that based on the evidence presented — which included a friend of Reyes's telling the animal inspector "Adwella was likely incarcerated under the name of Althea Reyes" — the two women were the same person.
Other suspected aliases revealed in a court affidavit include Maxine Marchan, Isabelle Norris and other names linked to NCYMH.
CBC News reached out to Maxine Adwella by email and received several messages back from the charity.
A volunteer named Barbara, who didn't provide a last name, said "Awedalla" (as the name was spelled in the email) was "not the right person to speak for" the organization. She said the charity "has never interviewed or hired Althea Reyes."
When CBC News asked if Barbara was Althea Reyes, the organization's chair, Kamala Tiwari, replied instead, saying this was "the last straw" and that Barbara was a 70-year-old retired nurse. She said the charity would file a police report if the CBC contacted them with any further questions.
Student describes panic attack over lawsuit threat
It wasn't until very recently that staff and volunteers with NCYMH learned about the court case that allegedly exposed their leader's alias. The revelation had many trying to disassociate themselves from the organization as quickly as possible.
Dumont, the former employee, worked part-time at NCYMH for approximately two months, between November and January.
Her duties included booking speakers for an online mental health convention that took place last week. Dumont reached out to many of her own contacts and encouraged them to get involved in the event.
"At the time, I thought I was offering these people amazing opportunities and an incredible speaking engagement," she said.
But Dumont said she grew suspicious when the organization announced late last year that Adwella would be replaced as executive director by a woman named Jacqueline Lawrence.
Dumont said a photograph of Lawrence being used on the charity's website was the same as that of a Toronto student with a different name who worked briefly for Adwella's other organization, Equal Justice Canada. When she asked the charity about it, Dumont says she was told that as an Algonquin woman she should understand this discrepancy because "Indigenous people also have different names."
Soon after, the Toronto student's photograph disappeared from the NCYMH website, Dumont said.
On Jan. 26, an Algonquin College student who had also recently quit the charity warned Dumont that Adwella was an alias for Reyes. It was too much for her, she said. She resigned and told the speakers she had booked for the convention what she knew. She also posted about her experience online.
She immediately received an email from a woman whom she had never met named Galia Bronfman saying she was fired for "insubordination, disrespect and lack of professionalism."
More messages followed from different people using NCYMH email addresses, including one that warned she could be sued if she continued to post about the charity on social media, stating: "I suggest you speak with a lawyer." Dumont said she was also advised: "Don't ruin your future with this silly situation."
As a 20-year-old with no money to hire a lawyer, the threat of legal action caused Dumont to have a panic attack, she said.
"I just couldn't stop crying. I couldn't breathe."
In an email to CBC News, NCYMH said "Dumont's enployment [sic] was terminated and she is lashing out in a very destructive way," and that the "organization does not threaten people."
Brooke Shaw, an 18-year-old social justice advocate, said she had a similarly upsetting experience after she learned of Dumont's concerns and tried to disentangle herself from the organization.
Shaw said she felt threatened when she pulled out of her speaking role at last week's convention.
"There was intimidating language used in allusion to knowing my address, requesting to come meet me in person," Shaw said of text messages she received from NCYMH.
"We all wanted to be there, to do something for other BIPOC youth. That's all we wanted to do," she said. "And now this is happening in exchange."
Law student alerts court
Ish Aderonmu is a former employee who signed an affidavit to testify that Adwella is Reyes.
The Ryerson law student, who has written in Toronto Life magazine about turning his life around after serving time in a U.S. prison for drug trafficking, was offered a job by Adwella at another non-profit, Equal Justice Canada.
Last September, he travelled with Adwella to Ottawa for training and to meet the team, neither of which happened, he said.
Instead, Aderonmu was copied on documents about a lawsuit Equal Justice Canada had launched against Big Brothers Big Sisters. He was also surprised to find himself in a Zoom meeting with Adwella and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board discussing an upcoming mental health conference.
The peculiar experience prompted him to do some digging about his new boss. He said he began searching the internet and discovered a Toronto Star investigation with a photo of Althea Reyes.
"I looked at the picture. I mean, it was her."
Aderonmu contacted Big Brothers Big Sisters to let them know about Reyes's vexatious litigant designation and signed an affidavit testifying to what he had discovered. He also reached out to the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and everyone else who he knew had crossed her path.
Within days, Aderonmu learned she had sent out an email to several of his contacts, advising them he had been fired after two days on the job for "destructive behaviour," fighting with board members and "emotional and aggressive outbursts." NCYMH said in its email to CBC News that Aderonmu is a "disruptor" spreading "false information."
He said he's now worried she will continue to lie about him in a bid to ruin his future legal career.
In December, an appeal was filed in the lawsuit against Big Brothers Big Sisters by Equal Justice Canada — in part because, it said, the court was unaware of Aderonmu's criminal record for "human trafficking and fraud."
Those allegations are false, Aderonmu said.
"She said some awful, awful, awful, untrue things about me in court filings — like in court filings up to the Court of Appeal. And she doesn't care."
Speakers, staffers struggle to cut ties
Dumont said she feels badly that many of the young people she introduced to the charity were still being featured on the website despite backing out of their speaking commitments.
Cristal Hines, a 23-year-old activist and community organizer in Toronto, said she was told by NCYMH that it could not remove her from the website's front page after she quit.
"It feels like such an over-step," Hines said. "It's extremely distasteful."
Nys Lumarque is also still listed on the website despite having quit his part-time job there.
"It's a head-shaker," he told CBC News.
He and two other Algonquin College students joined NCYMH after pitching the organization as a worthy charity for a class fundraising campaign. Algonquin pulled out of the campaign after contacting other mental health charities in Ottawa and learning they had not heard of NCYMH.
"It's really disappointing," Lumarque said of not being able to sever ties despite repeated requests. "You definitely feel like your privacy is being invaded."
A similar situation happened to Ottawa psychologist Dr. Helen Ofosu, who is still listed as a company director despite resigning on Jan. 28, after less than a month in the volunteer role.
Since her lawyer spoke with CBC News about the situation, Ofosu has received negative Google reviews from people she said she has never met.
Several of NCYMH's corporate partners listed, including RBC Insurance, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation and the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, said they had not heard of the organization and had not helped fund it.
Activist standing strong
The former staff and volunteers who spoke with CBC News said their experience with the charity changed them.
Shaw said she's more careful now about who she trusts. And she finds it a sad twist that the people suffering as a result of their experience with NCYMH are Black and Indigenous young people — members of the very communities the charity is supposed to help.
"All of this is happening under the guise of youth mental health, especially for BIPOC youth, and we are the ones being harmed the most in this scenario," she said.
Dumont expects she and the others will come out of this experience stronger.
"She may have been able to deteriorate my mental health a little bit, but I am still here. I am still standing," she said. "Myself and the other youth are going to be a lot stronger than we were before."