Politics

Greens in turmoil over handling of internal probe into executive director's past conduct

As it heads into its leadership contest, a struggle is playing out on the Green Party's federal council over whether the party's executive director Prateek Awasthi should resign over past behaviour and harassment complaints, CBC News has learned.

Party's president has resigned and council member quit over the controversy

Former Green Party leader Elizabeth May. The party she led is being roiled by an internal conflict over harassment allegations against its executive director. (Reuters/Stephane Mahe)

As it heads into its leadership contest, a struggle is playing out on the Green Party's federal council over whether the party's executive director Prateek Awasthi should resign over past behaviour and harassment complaints, CBC News has learned.

Multiple people on the party council tell CBC News the body is divided over whether Awasthi should continue in his current role. Party president Jean-Luc Cooke resigned, a council member quit the party entirely, two of Green leadership candidate Meryam Haddad's campaign staffers have quit and other grassroots members have threatened to leave the party over the dispute.

"I feel like there's a ticking bomb ... in the party," said Haddad. "Us, the party, the establishment trying to hide certain allegations ... The party's covering up all of this."

The party hired Awasthi in May. During his job interview, Awasthi disclosed his version of events that transpired at his previous workplace, Engineers Without Borders (EWB), but he did not tell the party that he'd personally faced harassment allegations at EWB, according to interim Green Party leader Jo-Ann Roberts.

Awasthi told the party he was part of EWB management's "efforts to disparage and ignore claims of sexual harassment and assault," according to an internal investigation report written by outgoing leader Elizabeth May and leaked to CBC News.

That report says Awasthi told the party he had ignored tweets about harassment based on legal advice and "in the spirit of loyalty without realizing that in doing so, I was unknowingly discrediting a survivor of sexual violence."

Prateek Awasthi was hired as the executive director of the Green Party in May, 2020. (CBC News)

"I do not support what has happened," said former Green federal council member Lorraine Hewlett, who stepped down from the council, the human resources committee and the party altogether in response to the controversy.

"Part of my resignation was in protest against that. I do not want to be associated with the retention of this employee ... When it comes to the 'Me Too' movement, I wanted to come down on the right side of this issue."

Awasthi later told council he apologized to the complainant, took responsibility and resigned from EWB.

"I didn't know what I had done was wrong, but the moment I was called out, I stopped, I stepped back, did everything I could to correct my mistakes and took personal accountability for my actions (and inactions)," Awasthi wrote in a letter to the Greens' federal council on July 18.

"I feel disappointed in myself and others for not having adopted a survivor-centric approach from day one."

Awasthi said in his letter to the council that when he disclosed his "mistakes" at the EWB to the Green party officials vetting him, they "agreed that this experience would be an asset for the GPC if ever we deal with a similar situation in the future." He also said he offered to resign if the party thinks he's unfit for the job.

Jo-Ann Roberts, left, goes in for a hug with leader Elizabeth May during election night at the Victoria Conference Centre in Victoria, B.C., Monday, October 19, 2015. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

Roberts said she considers the matter a confidential human resources issue.

"The hiring committee looked into it and we determined that it did not disqualify Mr. Awasthi as a candidate," said Roberts. 

The hiring committee did not share Awasthi's account of his experience at EWB with the party's council, however. According to May's report, it doesn't appear that anyone from the party tried to verify Awasthi's version of events.

"I do believe that this should have been brought to council, but I can tell you it was an oversight," said Roberts. "It wasn't intentional to hide this."

Two of the EWB complainants who spoke to CBC News accused Awasthi of harassment, saying he was aggressive in meetings, talked to employees in a demeaning tone and contributed to a toxic work environment.

According to internal emails viewed by CBC News, an internal EWB investigation found no evidence of harassment as of June 2019 and added the organization's human resources department concluded there was a workplace conflict in Awasthi's team.

A third former employee at EWB, Chelsey Rhodes, accused Awasthi of taking part in an effort to discredit her personal reputation and her work. Rhodes said she was a victim of harassment at EWB and that she broke her non-disclosure agreement to speak up about systemic harassment and cover-ups in the humanitarian aid, development and NGO sector. She said she launched an online project to gather stories from other alleged victims and tweeted several of her claims about Awasthi's workplace behaviour directly at May.

In a statement to CBC News, Awasthi said he's been "open" about his "brief role in the [EWB's] response to claims that it had failed to properly address a case of sexual harassment that occurred in 2011." He said that when he learned in 2019 that information he had was in dispute, he corrected the record and apologized.

"I have every confidence in the Green Party's internal processes," he said. "I will not comment further. Our focus is now on preparing the organization to welcome the new leader."

When CBC News reached out to EWB Canada for comment, the organization referred to an August 2019 public statement, in which it said it had conducted a full review with input from Rhodes, and two independent legal reviews confirmed its position that "EWB's duty of care was fulfilled through our mediated process."

The statement also said EWB has banned the use of non-disclosure agreements in personnel matters and established a "clear and accessible" complaints policy and procedure.

"However, we do acknowledge (Chelsey Rhodes') truth, and regret her negative experience with EWB," the statement said. 

May's investigation

May launched her own internal investigation in July and spoke to former EWB employees. According to her internal report, May heard claims that Awasthi picked on a female EWB staffer, driving her to tears on occasion, and that there was one case of an inappropriate sexual suggestion at EWB.

"There was no reason to believe Awasthi was involved in sexual harassment or assault. Ever," said a confidential email from May on July 25 to the federal council.

"I do believe he bullied junior staff in the spring of 2019, but has amended his conduct and learned from his experience," she wrote. "We, as a party, are at a perilous moment. We are on the verge of a public lynching of an innocent human being."

Green Party parliamentary leader Elizabeth May speaks during a news conference, Wednesday, July 8, 2020 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

May wrote in her report that the Greens needed to prepare for the media getting wind of the story.

"He has — as some could argue — done nothing that would damage us as an organization," she said. "Still, we know that there is a high degree of trauma around such incidents and the reputational risk may not be survivable. On this, I hope [the Green Party] gets expert advice."

May told CBC News her report was written months ago, was never "definitive" and a lot has changed since then. She said she was trying to help the federal council do its due diligence and not leap to any conclusions that would run "a risk of having a split within the party."

"Anything that was written in a confidential message months ago does not represent my current views," May said today. "We've done more investigation, we have to move toward consensus, and my view throughout has been that my own position was neutral."

The interim leader said May's report's findings were significant but should be subjected to an outside review.

"It does point to the need for us to have a third party investigate this further if we're going to take any other actions," said Roberts.

'Shocked and heartbroken'

The Greens' federal council privately voted in August to accept Awasthi's resignation, according to multiple council members. Party president Cooke — who supported keeping Awasthi in the job — resigned immediately afterward, tweeting that "an in-camera (closed doors) decision of council forced me into this decision.

"I offered to be reappointed if several members of council resign. I'll find other ways to help the world until then."

Roberts said that vote is in dispute now because it may conflict with a decision made at an earlier council meeting. She would not disclose the nature of that decision, calling it confidential.

May said proper notice of the vote wasn't given, the decision contradicted an earlier motion and more time was needed to try to come to a consensus.

Multiple council members who spoke to CBC News called it "deeply disturbing" that party executives did not respect that vote.

"I was very disturbed the democratic rules weren't being followed," said Hewlett. "The results of that voting process were ignored and not implemented."

The situation has also affected the Green leadership race. Haddad said she was encouraged by other Green members to send a letter supporting Awasthi and saying he had created a safe space in the party for individuals like herself — an immigrant lesbian born in Syria. Later, she said, she thought twice about the initial letter and sent a second one saying that the party should embrace a zero tolerance policy on workplace harassment.

Haddad said her campaign manager and press secretary — both of whom supported keeping Awasthi — quit her campaign over the controversy. She said the party's credibility as a champion of the marginalized is at stake.

"Green values are what we are representing on the outside. But what goes on inside, it's something hideous which is unacceptable," said Haddad. "Change must happen."

Green Party member Bonnie North told CBC News she was subjected to sexual harassment and sexual assault during her two decades in the Canadian Armed Forces. She calls the Greens vetting process one of "wild incompetence."

"I'm both shocked and heartbroken," said North, adding she and other members are threatening to leave the party over the controversy. "The Green Party of Canada is not the place for him to greenwash his reputation. If he needs redemption, then he should find redemption elsewhere."

May's local campaign manager in the last election, Michael Strumberger, recently stepped away from the Greens after six years. He said the party has a problem with top-down, opaque decision-making.

"There's no accountability," said Strumberger. "Members don't have a lot of visibility into the decisions that are made. More and more, our federal council, our governing board is operating in-camera and obviously not reporting what happens. So that's a pattern."

Awasthi's probationary period at work expires on Sunday — the day after the new leader will be announced.

About the Author

Ashley Burke

Reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. Have a story idea? Email her at ashley.burke@cbc.ca

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