Four more board members resigned from Canada’s national gay lobby group Nov 24, following the departure of Egale’s executive director Gilles Marchildon at the end of October, a committee co-chair in November, and two board and two staff resignations earlier this summer.
Vice president Enrique Lopez de Mesa, Jean-Bruno Villeneuve and Bruce Hicks resigned after several board members asked Hicks to leave for allegedly addressing them in an aggressive manner and harassing staff. Though Marchildon has yet to reveal the reasons for his resignation, he filed a harassment complaint against Hicks in September.
Hicks and his supporters say he may have been “heavy handed” at times but he was merely trying to fix the organization’s alleged financial, personnel and accountability problems.
In his parting e-mail dated Nov 24, Lopez de Mesa says he “lost all confidence in achieving the tasks at hand… as such, I can neither endorse nor invest myself. Therefore, effective immediately, I shall resign from all involvement and withdraw from all association.”
Villeneuve echoed Lopez de Mesa in his e-mail dated the same day, saying he “lost all confidence in Egale’s current leadership following Bruce and Enrique’s departure.” He apologized to new members for what he termed “this coup,” but said he “simply cannot work like this.”
Newly minted board member, Lisa Voldeng, who had yet to take up her appointment as BC’s representative, decided to withdraw without attending a meeting. “My concern over the divisiveness of the board, compounded by the recent spate of resignations, affects my ability to serve with full faith and good conscience,” she wrote in her own Nov 24 e-mail. “[T]he issues you’re addressing appear to be long-entrenched legacy ones, that are, in my opinion, best addressed by the current leadership and board.”
Egale president Gemma Schlamp-Hickey says organizations always have personality conflicts, though she describes her term as “the most challenging in terms of board dynamics.” Still, she maintains that a good core group remains at Egale, and that she’s committed to the organization.
In fact, she says, people have already begun returning to the organization since Hicks’ departure.
“It’s too bad it did not work out,” she says, “but we recognize [Hicks’] contribution. He had a lot of energy, good ideas, many of which were incorporated by the board. We are looking forward to continuing into the future, fighting for trans rights, safe schools, and other ongoing issues.”
Board members Stephen Lock and Hilary Cook also signalled their relief over Hicks’ departure, suggesting the working environment at Egale had become “untenable.”
Lock says Hicks’ allegedly “aggressive, demeaning way” of expressing himself did not fit with the group’s concept of seeking equality and human rights. The result, he says, was that it was very difficult to do any work because internal communications were always an issue. “Despite repeated requests [to Hicks] to tone it down, to be less rude, he didn’t seem to be willing to do so,” Lock says.
Like Schlamp-Hickey, Lock is quick to point out Hicks’ positive contributions. “He moved Egale on issues, internal policy issues, he streamlined things, on financial issues, he did some good work on that. There wasn’t any problem with that. The problem was with the way he tried to accomplish tasks, the way he would treat staff and deal with other board members–very authoritarian, very aggressive.
“‘What’s wrong with that?’ people might say, but there’s a difference between aggressive on one level to try and fix things, and calling out individuals as incompetent and saying ‘step aside let me do this,'” says Lock. “He locked horns with Gilles on a number of occasions and without getting into who was right or wrong, his manner was extremely upsetting for everybody.”
Cook says she found Hicks’ style of communication “stressful.”
“We had four women leave in the summer. That was the first round of resignations. Three of them, I would say, were probably related to Bruce. One of them had nothing to do with Bruce.”
Hicks, who initially refused to comment about his resignation, posted a response on Egale’s e-mail listserv on Nov 28 objecting to what he terms Schlamp-Hickey’s attempts to “explain away all the problems with Egale by laying them at my feet, even though I only joined the board eight months ago.”
Hicks says Egale’s personnel problems predate his joining the board in April. He points to a 2005 staff pay cut and the laying off of Egale’s then-only female employee as creating a demoralizing office atmosphere. That female employee’s dismissal is now before the courts as a wrongful dismissal suit, he alleges.
Cook won’t confirm or deny Hicks’ lawsuit allegation, but says staff cuts were necessary for budgetary reasons. He’s “setting up a straw man and arguing against it,” she says.
Hicks says Egale has been experiencing financial difficulties since 2004, which “have resulted in equipment being repossessed and in bills being turned over to several collection agencies. Rules set by the by-laws, the board, auditors and good accounting practices were being circumvented,” he alleges.
Cook admits Egale has one bill and one piece of equipment that need to be dealt with, but won’t discuss the matter further.
The issue that “finally and terminally divided the board,” says Hicks, was the “developing fight over how to recruit a new [executive director].”
Hicks would like to see the position widely advertised and every step taken to ensure Egale finds a “skilled professional.” This suggestion, he says, met with “vehement opposition” from some directors “who thought they could just canvas their friends and find a suitable candidate.”
That’s simply not true, says Cook.
“That he is the lone standard bearer in that is simply not accurate,” she says, adding the board is planning to advertise the position.
Schlamp-Hickey says the hiring committee is already short-listing potential new executive directors and hiring new staff.
Hicks says much of the tension on the board ultimately comes down to a clash “between old and new.” Some directors prefer a more grassroots, community-based structure while others, like Hicks, would like to move Egale towards a more corporate fundraising model.
“It was my hope that the fundraising vision for Egale would not only hold the organization in good stead for the future with tangible programs in long neglected areas of the community, but would solve the immediate financial and personnel problems that predate my having been elected to the board,” says Hicks, noting that Egale “seems to have no current capacity” for raising money.
In his time on the board, Hicks developed a plan to raise $25 million in five years. Egale’s annual budget is approximately $350,000.
“That’s just not where we’re at as an organization. We need to think practically, and we need to think about where we’ve come from,” says Schlamp-Hickey, adding that Hicks’ plan was never approved by the board.
Though Cook says Hicks was not asked to leave for ideological differences, she acknowledges that he, Villeneuve and Lopez de Mesa all share a common vision for Egale.
It’s a vision she does not share herself. “We’ve always been a grassroots organization. We don’t want to leave that behind,” says Cook. “We also clearly need to raise funds to do the work we need to get done, and we’ve always been able to do that,” she adds.
Hicks would like to see “new blood” infused into Egale, and especially into its board. “Egale has no shortage of great leaders in the community. What is more, the organization has the potential to be anything you want it to be,” he writes in his e-mail, urging people to get involved.
For her part, Schlamp-Hickey says it’s full steam ahead. “It’s an exciting time for Egale,” she says.