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Accusations fly at troubled lobby group

Former Egale board members call for special meeting

INTERNAL MATTERS. Egale president Gemma Schlamp-Hickey says she regrets the gossip and rumours surrounding the organization.

National queer lobby group Egale Canada has been reduced to a shell of its former self by infighting and internal harassment, say former employees and board members.

Douglas Bartholemew-Saunders, a former Egale board member from Ontario who left the board in 2004, says he had been told of harassment, of the board taking on too much power, of staff being reduced to one person and of a generally poisonous atmosphere.

“I was hearing about indecision on the board and the board being preoccupied with day-to-day issues rather than the broader issues of social justice and the mission of the organization. I heard about resignations of staff, resignations of board members.”

Bartholemew-Saunders says he tried to talk to the board about his concerns, but was told only that the board was worried about such rumours circulating. He says he wanted to call a special meeting of Egale’s membership to discuss the issues, but was told that there was no provision for contacting members. Bartholemew-Saunders says he saw no other option than to post a letter detailing the issues — signed by several other former board members and Egale employees — to an Egale listserv.

“If we can’t speak directly to the board of the organization of which we are members, there’s something wrong with the organization,” says Bartholemew-Saunders. “Based on what we heard, it appears the organization is faltering. We can’t afford to have it falter.”

Ariel Troster, who resigned as a board member in August of this year, also signed the letter. Troster, who is also a columnist for Xtra’s Ottawa sister paper, said in an e-mail interview that she shares Bartholemew-Saunders’ concerns.

“Board members seemed intent on criticizing and micromanaging the staff. Their stated goal was to make the organization more efficient but the result after six months is that several board members have resigned, and there is now only one full-time person left on staff. Egale has been reduced to a shell of the organization that it once was, and is now on shaky ground at a time when the queer community needs it most.

“The environment had become increasingly hostile to staff, and to any board members who dared to suggest that perhaps this kind of treatment was out of line.”

Troster pointed to some new board policies as examples.

“An example is a new financial policy that prevents staff members from signing cheques, effectively crippling the organization, and forcing staff to courier cheques to board members in different cities in order to pay the bills.”

When asked about the accusations, Egale president Gemma Schlamp-Hickey referred Xtra to a reply she had circulated by e-mail.

“In July of this year, Gilles Marchildon, our executive director, filed an internal complaint against a board member,” she wrote. “Real and timely steps were taken to discuss the tone and content of the e-mail with all board members at that time. At the first board meeting following the complaint, the member offered a full and unequivocal apology to Gilles. There have been no further complaints filed against board members.

“The e-mail [circulated by Bartholemew-Saunders] pointed to board resignations as having resulted from failings at the board level. Of those who have resigned, none have communicated to the board that the concerns cited by the author of the e-mail were the reason. It would seem odd for people to resign in protest without at least taking the opportunity to explain why.”

Schlamp-Hickey admits that Egale has reduced staff for financial reasons, but says the situation is better than critics portray it.

“The [Bartholemew-Saunders] e-mail sent to the list states that as of Aug 31 there is only one paid employee of Egale. In fact, as of Sep 1, we hired someone on a part-time consulting basis to oversee our ongoing involvement in legal cases and other advocacy. The board did decide in late August to delay the replacement of our office manager until we received a substantial grant, which was expected in mid-September. This has resulted in a temporary reduction in our staffing level.”

Schlamp-Hickey says that the criticism of Egale could hurt the organization’s efforts.

“The letter writer suggests that ‘given that Parliament is about to resume and that we may well face a critical vote on equal marriage in the very near future… now is not the time for [Egale] to be the subject of rumour and gossip’ and we agree. We regret the timing of the e-mail and the resulting need to air, more publicly than we would have liked, some internal tensions which currently exist at Egale and which are being dealt with by the board.”

But Troster says the timing is precisely why Egale members need to take action now.

“They should be concerned because Egale is the only organization in Canada that advocates for LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans] equality at a national level, in the courts and on the streets. Without a functioning Egale, our community could lose out — especially in the face of Harper’s Conservatives.”