Indigenous

Small group's 'political agenda' behind move to suspend NWAC president, board emails allege

The move to suspend the president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada during a hastily called meeting in June created tensions between board members and triggered allegations a small group was acting on its own to oust the organization’s leader.

Native Women's Association of Canada expected to hold annual general meeting beginning on Friday

Native Women's Association of Canada president Francyne Joe (Submitted by NWAC)

The move to suspend the president of the Native Women's Association of Canada during a hastily called meeting in June created tensions between board members and triggered allegations a small group was acting on its own to oust the organization's leader.

Three members of the Native Women's Association of Canada's (NWAC) six-member executive council were accused of leading the push to suspend president Francyne Joe on June 18, according to the emails and a record of the meeting.

The suspension created divisions within the 20-member NWAC board of directors with some members claiming that a small group aligned with the organization's CEO Lynne Groulx wanted to permanently push Joe out from the presidency, the emails show.

The executive council is made up of the president, four regional representatives (who also sit on the board), along with a national elder and youth member.

The emails also show that some board members questioned whether the executive council had the authority to suspend the president on its own.

Ongoing tensions between Joe and NWAC CEO Lynne Groulx surfaced publicly after police were called to the organization's then-headquarters in Ottawa this past May after NWAC's board passed a motion barring Joe from the office.

The incident occurred after NWAC employees spoke out publicly, alleging management was doing nothing to deal with a toxic work environment gripping the organization that was affecting the mental health of some staff.

NWAC hired a third party to conduct a probe into allegations of workplace harassment this past spring, records show.

NWAC was founded in 1974 and created the first comprehensive database on murdered and missing Indigenous women.

Joe's current status with the organization is unclear, but the organization is holding an annual general meeting from Friday to Sunday.  

Gail Paul, the first vice-president of NWAC's board, is currently serving as interim president. 

Meeting called at last minute

Anna Thomas, president of the B.C. Native Women's Association, wrote in a June 20 email to board members that she only received an email alerting her about the June 18 meeting 38 minutes before it began. 

Thomas, who is NWAC's second vice-president, said she then received a phone call from Judy Hughes 15 minutes before the 1:15 p.m. start of the meeting. 

"Which is the history of these meetings, very last minute," wrote Thomas. 

Thomas said in her email that Joe, who is a member of the executive council, was not alerted to the meeting that led to her suspension. 

Lynne Groulx, CEO of Native Women's Association Canada. (Joe McDonald/CBC)

The June 18 meeting record shows that Lorraine Whitman, president of the Nova Scotia Native Women's Association, moved the motion to suspend Joe and that it was seconded by Judy Hughes, president of the Saskatchewan Aboriginal Women's Circle Corporation.

The record also shows that Lavern Contois, the national elder representative on the executive council, also participated in the meeting.

The vote went three in favour of suspension and one against.

Thomas said she voted against the motion to suspend Joe.

The council also voted to appoint Gail Paul, who heads the Indigenous Women's Association of the Maliseet and Mi'kmaq Territories, as interim president at the same meeting.

Thomas said three members of the executive council — Hughes, Paul and Whitman — were "acting on their own political will" and "using any excuse to push their political agenda" to oust Joe. 

She said the three members were acting without fully informing the rest of NWAC's board of directors.

"The [board of directors] is not being consulted and when questions are brought forward, those that have access to NWAC lawyers or outside legal [counsel] only share small amounts of information," said Thomas.

"How is three women who want President Francyne Joe removed from her position able to make decisions of her work?" said Thomas, in the email. "It is unethical…."

Gail Paul, president of the Indigenous Women's Association of the Maliseet and Mi'kmaq Territories. (Joe McDonald/CBC)

Thomas also said the board also wasn't being consulted on NWAC media statements expressing support for Groulx in the face of employee allegations of a toxic work environment, "which is completely false and very inappropriate." 

Steven Pink, a lawyer with NWAC, told CBC News in an emailed statement that the organization was "unable to comment" on Joe's status. 

"We suggest you contact Francyne Joe," said the statement.

CBC News attempted to contact Joe over Facebook and via her cell phone but received no response.

It remains unclear whether she has taken any legal action.

Executive Council's authority questioned

CBC News contacted members of the executive council who attended the meeting and a fifth board member who expressed concern over Joe's suspension. 

None of the board members contacted responded to CBC News. 

However, Pink sent a statement on the executive council's behalf. 

"The statements you refer to in your email are confidential emails between board members," said the emailed statement. 

"We can advise you that all decisions of the executive council and the board of directors are made in the best interests of NWAC and these decisions will be implemented according. NWAC will not comment on confidential matters."

NWAC board member Terri Szabo, president of the Yukon Aboriginal Women's Council, wrote board members on July 2 stating that the executive council had no power to suspend Joe and had breached its bylaws. 

Szabo, who is not on the executive council, said the decision to suspend Joe made NWAC vulnerable to a lawsuit and she demanded Joe's immediate reinstatement.

 "This email is also for the record just in case NWAC gets sued, and it will, if this unjust behaviour continues," wrote Szabo.

"This email can be used in the court of law to show that the [executive council] is liable for misrepresenting NWAC."

Whiteman, one of the executive council members, said in a July 3 email that the executive council was acting under authority granted by terms of references that had been approved by the board. 

She wrote that the executive council could "act on behalf of the board between meetings."

 Szabo questioned the terms of reference existence and called NWAC a "dysfunctional" organization. 

"I have been with NWAC for about a year and I have not seen a motion passed and approved by the board to accept the terms of reference," she wrote on July 3. 

A president can only be suspended through a "special resolution" from the organization's board of directors, according to version of NWAC's bylaws updated this past March and obtained by CBC News. 

A special resolution needs to be passed by a more than two-thirds of board members. 

Internal probe started in spring

The decision to suspend Joe and the tensions it triggered unfolded while a consultant, appointed by NWAC, began probing allegations of workplace harassment in the organization.

Susan Josselyn, partner with Management and Interpersonal Solutions, sent a May 27-dated memo to prospective interviewees about the investigation. 

"An employee who participates or co-operates in a workplace investigation is protected from retaliation or reprisals," said the memo, obtained by CBC News. 

"This includes protection against any threats of or actual punishment by co-workers or management."

CBC News asked NWAC for an update on the investigation, but a response to this question was not included in the statements from Pink.

About the Author

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