4 min

Pride Toronto abruptly fills board vacancy in lead-up to AGM

Whether they intend it or not, the message is 'We're stacking the board': Demchuk

Pride Toronto's new board member, Chad Simon

After enduring months of harsh criticism that it is unresponsive to the queer communities it serves — particularly from black and trans groups — Pride Toronto has baffled supporters and critics alike by abruptly appointing a new board member, who quickly came under fire for transphobic comments he made in 2008.

Chad Simon was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Pride Toronto (PT) board of directors on Aug 26. When Keith Clarkson resigned from the Pride board in January, he left a gap that has remained all year.

Most board members are elected at an annual general meeting, but PT’s board is empowered to appoint new board members when seats are vacated.

But with PT’s AGM set for Sept 23, the decision to appoint Simon — rather than have him stand for election — has some people scratching their heads.

“Why now?” asks Kristyn Wong-Tam, a member of Queer Ontario’s media committee and a candidate for Toronto city council.

“It is standard practice in board governance to try to fill a vacancy as soon as possible or at the next scheduled AGM. This is why the timing of the appointment is now of concern… Open and transparent governance is what the community is expecting and what I have been suggesting since the sign-vetting debate.”

“It’s the optics of it,” says writer David Demchuk. “They know the entire community is looking at them and wanting transparency and accountability and participation with the community in trying to solve leadership problems. Even if Chad might be wonderful, appointing somebody at this time, right before their annual general meeting, sends a really unfortunate message. Whether they intend it or not, the message is, ‘We’re stacking the board.’ Even if they meant this in the best possible way, this is so easily poorly perceived, and it’s odd that they would do this now when there’s an AGM so very soon.”

If Pride urgently needed to fill that gap, argues Demchuk, they could appoint a new board member, “then have him stand for election with everyone else at the AGM… they’ve short-circuited the process.”

Simon admits he’s heard these criticisms this week.

“I’m working on something for the AGM to explain my background and how I became involved and what my goals are for Pride Toronto,” Simon says.

“I want to be a more integral part of the community. I want to see us grow as a community together. Unfortunately, sometimes it seems like there’s more fraction than there is unity, and I think it’s terrible. I’d like to see more community building.”

Unfortunately, Simon’s words are undermined by footage from a 2008 Xtra piece on sex reassignment surgery becoming funded by OHIP. As a man-on-the-street interviewee, Simon explained his opposition:

“That’s a choice that they’re making, to go and have that operation done, or the surgery done. I’d rather see all that funding going towards hospital beds and other things that speed up time when you’re in the hospital.”

Susan Gapka is a trans activist and another candidate for Toronto city council this fall.

“I didn’t know who this person was, but I started getting emails and postings. Some people are calling him transphobic. I wouldn’t go as far as that, but he’s considerably ill-informed.”

“That interview was done a long time ago,” insists Simon. “As you get a little older, a little more mature, you get more information on what’s going on in the community. It’s not just about what I want anymore, it’s about we. My values have definitely shifted towards that.”

Ultimately, he says, “I’m very new to this. I’m going to learn what’s going on and move forward with the community. That’s my goal.”

Gapka calls Simon’s interview “an educational moment.”

“Shouldn’t an organization with such a high profile have better scrutiny? There’s a governance credibility issue with Pride Toronto appointing this person, which was troubling enough without being compounded by these kind of comments. It does raise an incredible amount of questions. What is their criteria for selection?”

Exactly, says Demchuk.

In all the turmoil around Pride Toronto this year, at all the community rallies, “I didn’t see Chad Simon at any of those meetings, I didn’t see Chad Simon participating, and I have to wonder if that’s exactly why he was chosen. Who wouldn’t wonder that?”

“It’s not about any one person, it’s a systemic issue,” says Demchuk. “So many poor decisions have been made specifically to serve a vision of Pride which is, ‘bigger, better, blander.’ That vision is not working.”

With Pride posting an estimated $250,000 deficit this year, he warns, “Whoever next takes up the treasurer role and the financial responsibility does not replicate the same mistakes. These mistakes will destroy the organization.”

But Demchuk fears the Simon appointment is “an unpleasant piece of foreshadowing.”

“This does not say to me, ‘We have heard the community.’ Whether they intended it or not, it says the opposite….They may feel they’ve ‘heard’ the community, but clearly, in their minds, they’ve heard it, categorized it and filed it away. That’s not what this is about; it’s about interacting with the community.”

Demchuk has put his name forward for Pride Toronto’s board of directors.

As the board president of Bleecker Street Housing Co-op, he says, “To a certain extent, it’s apples and oranges, but essentially, how a board works and interacts with members and the community is vital to the health of the organization. The more you try to restrain that interaction, in the naive belief that you’re limiting turmoil, you actually foster turmoil.”

At press time, representatives of Pride Toronto have not returned Xtra‘s requests for interviews.