'We were being silenced': Former staff detail 'toxic' environment at Regina non-profit
Third-party investigation underway after sexual harassment allegations surfaced online
Former staff members of a Regina non-profit are sounding the alarm about what they call a toxic, manipulative and abusive workplace culture allegedly fostered by the highest level of management at the organization, which aims to empower young, vulnerable people and the community.
Kim Sutherland, founder of Street Culture Project (SCP), was put on leave on Aug. 5 after "allegations" surfaced online. Two other employees were assigned to "work remotely" and have zero contact with youth and staff.
At a brief news conference, board co-chair Joey Tremblay declined to provide any details about the nature of the allegations that prompted action toward three employees. He said there would be a third-party investigation into the allegations.
This followed the resignation of executive director Dustin Browne, who resigned July 30 after an anonymous accuser called him a "serial sexual harasser."
Browne's resignation prompted several other alleged victims to detail their own allegations of verbal and emotional abuse or harassment at SCP.
Sixteen people allege that members of SCP management fostered a toxic, abusive or otherwise inappropriate work environment since the late 1990s, and that personal ties among the people in power made it impossible to do anything about it.
CBC has requested comment from Sutherland regarding the allegations multiple times. He has declined to respond to the allegations, saying he is "fully in support of the current independent investigation."
"I am not able to comment on any allegations at this point because Street Culture Project is in a process with the independent investigator," he said.
'It's so heavy'
The former employees detailed "nepotism," sexual harassment, abuse of power and constant belittlement, public berating and insults. Two said they still have nightmares and several more have attended therapy to try and get over what they say happened.
"It's a very toxic, toxic place. You walk in there and it's so heavy. You are just so heavy and that stays with you forever," said one former employee CBC is referring to as Marie. CBC has agreed not to name several former employees who contributed to this story.
Former employees say they believe in the much-needed work that the organization does on the frontlines with youth, but that they can no longer remain silent about the men who lead it.
"The work has been phenomenal by the staff who are phenomenal in spite of the structure that is toxic," said a woman CBC is referring to as Jennifer.
Erin Fogarty, who worked for years at SCP, agreed.
"Knowing that you love something so much, like Street Culture and what it meant to us and our kids, and then also knowing this evil dark side of it is something that's challenging to live with."
From the top down
Fogarty said she sought out employment there because she believed so much in the mandate and in the founder and CEO Kim Sutherland's vision.
Street Culture Kidz Project became official in 1998 — spearheaded by Sutherland — and has grown to work with thousands of at-risk youth "from diverse populations." The non-profit runs an overnight emergency shelter for at-risk teens — the only one of its kind in the province — along with peer homes, mentorships, work experience and other programs.
Sutherland has said the "ultimate goal" is to get kids through school so they can contribute as "taxpaying citizens." His bio, which has since been removed from the website, said "don't let the title CEO throw you off; Kim spends most of his day at the front-line, engaging and supporting the youth and staff of Street Culture."
The Saskatchewan government gave nearly $3 million to SCP this fiscal year for the emergency youth shelter — which has served hundreds — as well as two group homes, two peer homes, "a mentoring contract and a leadership contract."
Sutherland has received extensive public praise and was awarded a Meritorious Service Medal from Canada's Governor General in 2015.
Jennifer (not her real name) said this image of a "darling organization" doesn't match what goes on behind the scene.
Sexual or aggressive behaviour at work
Jennifer and nearly a dozen others alleged that Sutherland often berated, insulted or yelled at the youth SCP was serving.
"I tried to talk to Kim about his behaviours, asked him not to call people pieces of shit, [or not to say] 'You're a loser, you're a loser, you're never going to amount to anyone.'"
One man, who CBC is referring to as Zach, worked with Sutherland for eight years said it went beyond words. Multiple employees have alleged Sutherland was rough with participants, including Zach who said he would "berat[e] them for choices, sometimes physically pushing them up against walls or choking them, threatening them."
Others alleged Sutherland would use racial slurs, refer to youth as hoodrats or use the terms "bitch" or "slut." He allegedly said things like "change your clothes or get the f--k out," or "you belong on the street."
Zach said Sutherland would allegedly "talk inappropriately about his sex life and his penis in front of youth." Zach said he feels guilt and shame for not calling it out.
Other longtime staffers said they saw Sutherland look at pornography, dating sites and "inappropriate sexual stuff" around staff. A man who spent more than 15 years there said Sutherland would rub his phone on his genitals when he was talking with someone he didn't like.
"He was always, always, always talking about his sex life," Fogarty said.
'A master manipulator'
Nearly a dozen former employees said Sutherland's alleged aggressive behaviour wasn't limited to the youth. They say he constantly demeaned and belittled staff members.
One woman, who CBC is calling Beth, said this behaviour drove her to hysteric tears. She said she became so sick from the stress of how she was treated at work that her doctor advised her to leave.
She described the work environment as that of a dysfunctional family in which there were favourites of Sutherland's who could do no wrong and then there were the scapegoats who were tormented.
A former employee from SCP's early days, who CBC is calling Teagan, said it happened to others before it happened to her.
"Without warning and for no real reason they would be ostracized and belittled and he would talk about them negatively in front of staff, in front of funders, anybody who would listen," she said.
She described a culture of gaslighting, intimidation and threats from Sutherland, "not physically, but with their livelihood," alleging that he threatened their opportunities at SCP.
More than one person described Sutherland as a "master manipulator." One man said "on [a]regular basis, he liked to 'intellectually masturbate' people — his words — he could mentally manipulate and watch them squirm."
Years of therapy
This man, who had to undergo therapy upon leaving, said he "personally was abused and trapped in an organization that minimized every effort I put forward and belittled and demeaned and my basic human dignity."
Marie, who said she was often called a c--t, incompetent and useless by other staff, said she had to go to counselling.
These two are not alone. Several former employees sought counselling to deal with mental trauma.
Jennifer said it's taken five years of therapy to deal with what she described as "constant belittlement." She describes being overcome with a feeling of dread every morning before entering the workplace and feeling numb when she would leave for the day.
She said the way she was treated was a "textbook definition of being downtrodden and made to believe something that's not true."
Jennifer said she was made to feel worthless, sexuallized and sexually violated. She said Sutherland would say "we are a family, we fuck up a family, we fight like a family and we survive and succeed like a family."
"But I was like, my brother has never grabbed my breasts in a staff meeting," she said.
She was referring to times executive director Dustin Browne allegedly groped her in 2010 and 2012. Browne did not respond to CBC's direct questions about these specific allegations.
Employees who worked at the organization in the latter years said there was no avenue for recourse, because the woman who ran the human resources department was Dustin Browne's partner and eventually mother to his child. The SCP board did not respond to questions about this relationship. In a statement, it said it "was a governance board and by definition... not involved in the day-to-day operations of the agency."
Jennifer said she used to believe she could change the "toxic" culture from within, but eventually gave up and formed an exit plan.
'Trapped' at the organization
Multiple people have grappled with why they stayed in an environment they call toxic. Many said they were told they would never find a job or opportunities beyond SCP. Staffers who were financially stable and equipped with degrees said they felt "trapped," like they couldn't leave even though they had the means to do so.
"[Sutherland] used his power to control people. He made us all feel like we were trapped there. Logically we knew we had other options," Zach said. "But he was very skilled at making people feel powerless."
That's why I stayed because I was 'nothing' without them.- Samantha Bird
Several sources said that when people left "the family" or "abandoned the mothership," members of management dragged their name through the mud and that asking for positive references wasn't an option.
Others, who began as vulnerable participants, said they were too fearful to try and leave.
"[Sutherland] gives you everything. He'll give you money, he'll give you a vehicle, he'll give you a place to stay — anything you need when you're down and out in the worst times of your life," said an employee who spent several years in and out of the organization into the late 2010s.
"Then he'll say things like, 'Look at what I've done for you… you owe me.'"
A life story 'exploited'
Samantha Bird said she felt as if Street Culture was her only hope in life.
She had put herself into foster care as a youth, had been homeless, had experienced violent domestic assault.
She moved into a youth home at 15 and remained with SCP, first as a youth and then an employee, for nearly ten years.
Bird said people like Sutherland would put her up to talk with journalists. When she watched the news reports, she felt disappointed because it seemed like they were "taking credit for this poor soul," she said.
She said they referred to an internal video about her story as the "give me money video." She remembers feeling like a deer in the headlights when she was brought to a fundraiser where it played.
"They made me wave at everybody like a show dog," she said. "I felt like I was a f--king auction."
She said she felt people at the helm of SCP controlled her life because they knew her history and her vulnerabilities. She said she was repeatedly told she would never find success in life without the organization, that she owed them because they raised her and that they were her saviours. Bird said she was encouraged not to meet up with people, including her former mentor, who left the organization.
"The way they manipulated me was like f--king textbook. It was like they groomed me and conditioned me into thinking that was unconditional love," Bird said. "That's why I stayed because I was 'nothing' without them."
She said Sutherland called her a bitch in front of youth and commented about her weight. Bird said when she was on maternity leave, they started putting other youth out to the press. She said her hours were cut back and she was eventually let go.
"Once I had my daughter and I grew up I wasn't important to them anymore."
Bird said it's painful to speak about this now because she was helped by SCP and did form positive relationships, but she wants accountability for the hurt.
"It's like finding out your family members were abusive."
Allegations against resigned executive director
SCP executive director Dustin Browne resigned on Jul. 30 after allegations of a "serial sexual harasser" surfaced on the Instagram page Survivors Stories Regina, which posts anonymous allegations of sexual violence. Browne wasn't named, but he responded directly to the post.
Fogarty said Browne specifically often crossed physical boundaries, such as at a staff social outing where Browne rubbed a colleague's body and grabbed at her as he repeated how "beautiful she was, how sexy she was."
She alleged Browne would massage people's shoulders or invade personal space. She said he would crawl under her colleague's desk, rubbing up against her as he pet her dog, allegedly making statements like "don't worry Uncle Dustin is here."
She said he would also talk explicitly about the sex lives of him and others.
"He would make comments about big titties … comments about your body or about things he would like to do to people. He would make inappropriate comments about our young female [participants]" Fogarty said.
One woman alleged Browne told her at a work social function that she was a good employee, but would be better if she gave him her panties.
"That experience specifically was just really mortifying and I had to go face him at work with him as my boss," she said.
Browne has not responded to additional requests for comment, but when he resigned he pointed CBC to a post he made on social media in response to allegations on the Survivor's Stories Regina Instagram account.
"I acknowledge that I have taken for granted that the power and privilege I have been afforded as a male, as well as my actions, have created a toxic and unprofessional environment," Browne wrote. "I will be attending counselling to better understand the negative impact I have had on female colleagues and staff."
2 employees not allowed contact with youth
Two other SCP employees have been delegated to work remotely and not have contact with staff or youth because of allegations that surfaced. CBC News has confirmed one is director of operations Mike Gerrand, who has declined to comment until the conclusion of the third party investigation.
Some of Gerrand's former coworkers said he would often speak unsolicited at work about his sex life, telling stories about having threesomes or oral sex. They said he would tell coworkers they could know he was "getting laid" if his face was shaved.
A female employee said Gerrand made loud comments about her sex life to another coworker at a staff meeting with more than 20 people there.
"It was difficult to stand in that room of people again and know that they laughed at a joke at my expense."
She said she raised her concern to Sutherland and was allegedly "laughed out of the office."
"[Sutherland] told me I was being dramatic. He minimized it to no end and made me feel like I was stupid for even coming forward," she said.
She said Sutherland later implied that if she wanted money or something else to be quiet, she could have it because they had to "protect" Gerrand's image or the agency could change forever.
The second employee assigned to remote work pending the investigation is shelter manager Burnie Hall.
Marie said allegations of sexual harassment that involved two overnight staff were brought to Hall, but were never escalated to human resources. Marie alleged Hall was also sexually inappropriate at work, talking about his sex life or asking sexual questions her "boyfriend doesn't even ask."
She said he said when he didn't get a job upgrade he wanted it was because he didn't have breasts and a vagina.
When presented with these allegations, Hall declined to comment and said he would not speak until the third party investigation has concluded.
'We were being silenced'
Marie said she approached SCP human resources to no avail.
"I would never get a meeting that I so badly needed to," Marie said. "We were being silenced, whether it was sexual, physical or emotional."
Several employees alleged that efforts to call out inappropriate behaviour -- like alleged sexual harassment or employees getting drugs for youth -- were stifled. Multiple employees described witnessing staff making sexualized comments to other staff, practicum students and youth.
"It was so f—king unsafe," Bird said, adding people started hitting on her when she turned 18. "These men thought it was okay to ask me about my sex life when they met me at my most vulnerable state."
She said if she expressed concern she was called a "bitch."
Other staff said they were berated or let go shortly after they vocalized concerns about things like supplies or the quality of housing being provided for youth.
Those who worked in SCP's early days said they couldn't report what was going on because it was Sutherland causing them anguish.
Personal and professional boundaries
Numerous employees said there was a lack of personal and professional boundaries at SCP.
Multiple males who were part of the program in its early days said Sutherland would take them to work out in the morning before school and would then shower naked with them. They said they were not physically touched, and at the time it didn't seem weird, but upon reflection said it feels "inappropriate."
"Teachers wouldn't do that. Coaches wouldn't do that. But he would," one said.
Jennifer said she felt like she always had to be accessible to Browne, Sutherland and Gerrand, even if she was on vacation.
Alicia Morrow worked at SCP and also worked nights at a local bar. She said Browne started showing up to her workplace, getting "hammered" and then waiting in the parking lot.
"He would wait there in the company car, he would text me weird things," she said.
"That made me very uncomfortable, like showing up to my workplace when you're the executive director and I'm a mentor. You are 30 something years old and I'm 21."
Morrow, who is 26 now, said she didn't think anyone would believe her.
Third party investigation
The majority of former employees said they felt they couldn't go to the board because it included longtime friends or associates of Sutherland's, including Dustin Browne's father Darryl, who was romantically involved with Sutherland for years. The board confirmed on Tuesday that Darryl Browne is no longer a board director with the organization.
Former employees also expressed concerns about board co-chair Tremblay, who has been the board's public face of the investigation. Sutherland is listed as board president Curtain Razor Theatre, a non-profit organization that Tremblay has close ties to.
In response to questions about this, the SCP board said, "Tremblay does not head up that organization, but is merely listed as an artistic associate."
Tremblay was artistic director of the organization from 2015 to 2019, during the same timeframe Sutherland was asked to join the board. The board said "Tremblay and Sutherland have a longtime professional friendship" but are communicating via lawyers for the duration of the investigation.
Saskatchewan government MLA Mark Docherty resigned from the SCP board after allegations emerged.
"Given the current situation and ongoing investigation, I feel that this is the best way to avoid any real or perceived conflict of interest between my duties and obligations as a board member and my personal friendship with Kim," he said in a statement.
One former employee said the structure of the board made it "weak" and left employees without options when they felt staff members were inappropriate.
In response to CBC, the board said in a statement that it would not comment on allegations and that "...every story that expands on the allegations hurts our frontline staff who are doing the hard work that's needed every day, which in turn, hurts the youth we are trying to further."
It said members are committed to doing the work to "fix whatever's needed to be fixed."
Despite the reassurances, many people who plan on filing complaints are not convinced it will amount to the change they believe necessary to help the organization move forward.
The third-party investigation, launched in the wake of Browne's resignation and headed by lawyer Donna Sigmeth, is expected to last at least three months.
A website set up for people to submit complaints says "it is ultimately up to the Board of Directors to decide whether to accept the findings and recommendations in the report."
Fogarty said she wants to see "the entire board of directors and the entire leadership at every level be evaluated and investigated appropriately."
One man said management accused of inappropriate behaviour "should never be allowed to work with vulnerable youth again. I hope the organization can undergo significant change to be able to actually fulfil their mandate — without the negative impacts."
'Scarred for life'
Jennifer said she has struggled to feel comfortable in new, "healthier" work environments even though she left SCP years ago.
Beth said she has never been able to fully return to work because of how the stress affected her mental health.
Marie said she has been "scarred for life" by her experiences. She said she has "no trust for anybody," including counsellors and her supervisors, who have said they have an "open door policy" for concerns.
"That's what Street Culture told me, too."
Teagan said that when she found the courage to leave the organization, she was so "beaten down" by Sutherland she failed at her next job and had to leave the non-profit sector for good.
"I had his voice constantly in my head that I wasn't good enough. I wasn't with anything. I wasn't capable or qualified," Teagan said.
She said his treatment caused her deep social anxiety that affected her career path for years and that she struggled to leave her house.
"I couldn't trust what he'd been saying about me to people. There are lasting effects. That's what happens when you have that psychological warfare."
If you have a complaint from your time with Street Culture Project, or about people associated with the non-profit, and would like to contact SCP's independent investigator you can find more information at this website: https://www.scpcomplaintsprocess.com/
If you would like to speak with a journalist regarding your experiences with Street Culture Project, or allegations of inappropriate behaviour within other local non-profit organizations, contact email@example.com.