National Indigenous women's organization feared it would 'go down' over conflict, toxic workplace allegations

Board members with Canada’s most prominent Indigenous women’s group feared the organization could “go down” over an ongoing conflict between its president and CEO amid swirling allegations staff suffered from a toxic work environment, according to board minutes obtained by CBC News.

September 2018 memo reveals Native Women's Association of Canada CEO knew of 'morale' issues

At table, from left, Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) CEO Lynne Groulx, NWAC President Francyne Joe and Minister of Crown Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett at a signing ceremony in Ottawa, Feb.1. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Board members with Canada's most prominent Indigenous women's group feared the organization could "go down" over an ongoing conflict between its president and CEO amid allegations staff suffered from a toxic work environment, according to draft board minutes obtained by CBC News.

Board members with the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) raised concerns over the fate of the organization during an April 17 meeting, held by teleconference.

Earlier that day, Ottawa police had showed up at the organization's headquarters after NWAC President Francyne Joe, who had been barred from the office, arrived at work. The police left without pressing any charges.

"NWAC will go down if we don't get a handle on it," read the draft minutes outlining the discussions that occurred during the meeting.

"No one wants a bad reputation from this."

NWAC was founded in 1974 and has been the leading voice advocating for Indigenous women since its creation. NWAC also created the first comprehensive database on murdered and missing Indigenous women and was one of the leading institutional voices calling for a national inquiry.

The board minutes were among a cache of documents including emails and memos obtained by CBC News that offer a snapshot of NWAC's executive committee grappling with the fallout of an April news story about allegations from employees who said they faced a toxic work environment.

NWAC's board, which has representatives from regional organizations across the country, had barred Joe from the organization's Ottawa office following an "emergency meeting" on April 12 that was held while Joe was travelling to British Columbia to attend a family funeral.

NWAC was scheduled to hold a meeting this past Saturday in Ottawa to decide Joe's fate, but it was cancelled because not enough delegates showed up to form quorum.

The toxic workplace allegations

Five NWAC employees spoke to CBC News in early April alleging that the work environment was affecting the mental health of staff and some were breaking down crying at their desks and in the bathroom.

Joe expressed concern over the allegations in separate articles published on April 8 and 9 while NWAC CEO Lynne Groulx and NWAC flatly denied the allegations.

"Any issues previously or currently reported do not exist," said the NWAC statement, at the time.

The NWAC board met on the evening of April 9 via teleconference that included Joe and Groulx, according to draft minutes of the meeting.

The discussion zeroed in on Joe's public statements and that she didn't consult with NWAC's lawyer or Groulx beforehand.

"This media coverage has placed NWAC in a very vulnerable place," said the minutes.

The board then passed a motion barring Joe from speaking with the media about the issue and on April 12 barred her from the building over a breakdown in relationship between Groulx and Joe that was triggered by the allegations, according to the minutes.

Lynne Groulx, is the executive director of the Native Women's Association of Canada. (NWAC)

The board passed a motion during the April 17 meeting demanding Joe turn over her keys to the national offices. The board decided to retain outside legal counsel "to discuss the current crisis situation between the president and CEO," according to the minutes.

The board also discussed getting a security guard for Groulx.

NWAC president felt attacks were personal

It's unclear from the minutes and the documents what triggered the conflict between Joe and Groulx. However, in an April 18 letter from Joe to the NWAC board, obtained separately by CBC News, the president said that she believed the conflict with Groulx had turned personal and that Groulx was aiming to destroy Joe's reputation.

"Yesterday morning, April 17, in an obvious effort to humiliate me, the CEO made the call which resulted in the arrival of the police," wrote Joe.

Joe said a statement issued by NWAC to the media following the Ottawa police incident was "an attempt to damage my reputation."

NWAC's statement claimed the police were called because Groulx felt "threatened" by Joe and that the president had "defied" the board's motion barring her from the premises.

In her letter, Joe said she would be seeking a lawyer.

She could not be reached for comment.

Francyne Joe, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, says allegations from employees are "distressing." (CBC News)

While NWAC publicly denied any internal workplace problems, a Sept. 24, 2018, memo reveals that Groulx knew there were issues in the office.

The memo, labelled "confidential" and titled Policy Unit HR and Operations Plan was drafted by Groulx. It listed a number of issues with the nine-employee policy unit including that "morale appears to be low," that "absenteeism is high" and that staff were complaining about "workload" and "lack of leadership."

The memo also outlined measures to deal with the complaints including restructuring the unit and laying off two junior policy advisers to be replaced by a single new position.

A separate email, obtained by CBC News, also revealed that Groulx asked to see an anonymous letter endorsed by 25 employees that was sent to human resources on Feb. 25 alleging that staff were facing "toxicity, hostility, stress and stress-related illnesses."

Groulx held a meeting the following week with staff, but did not mention the letter. However, Groulx had requested the letter before the meeting from the human resources manager, according to a copy of a Feb. 27 email provided to CBC News.

"I intend to respond to the allegations promptly," wrote Groulx, according to the email.

NWAC First Vice President Gail Paul issued a statement on behalf of the organization saying there would be no comment on the leaked board minutes. 

"As these documents concern personnel and other confidential matters, I have no intention – nor should anyone else – of commenting publicly on the content of the documents leaked by anonymous sources," said Paul's statement.

Paul's statement also denied the organization faced an internal workplace issues. 

"While no workplace is perfect, we continue to believe that NWAC's work environment is not toxic," said the statement. "Suffice it to say those allegations are far from the truth."

Paul's statement said the board continues to have "confidence" in Groulx's leadership.


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's investigative unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him