This post was written by Katie and originally published on Teen Skepchick. For more on the recent issues facing CFI: Canada, see Skepchick Natalie’s report on the short-lived CFI initiative Resonable Women.
CFI: Canada was founded in 2007 by Justin Trottier. With the help of his friends, family and a couple very large donors Justin created an organization that was having events daily, doing community development, opened branches across Canada and was having regular major media attention (including having a representative of CFI:Canada on a pretty popular television show weekly). My own background with it… I started as a media girl, ended up being the Executive Director for Ontario, ran the Canadian Atheist Bus Campaign with CFI and FAC and have also been a pretty loud voice against Justin and some of the bat-shit crazy stuff he thinks are good, so I have my biases here (I also met my fiance at CFI:Canada). I’m emotional about the issue and have a lot of information about the group.
What are they fractured over? To me it has to do a lot with grassroots vs. professionalism. Here’s the story as I know it…and it’s a long one, folks!
Despite being successful at making CFI:Canada the leading venue in Canada for issues of atheism, humanism, skepticism…etc. Justin started catching some flak from long standing volunteers. He was called the “pope” of atheism by Ian Bushfield because CFI:Canada had become run pretty much…entirely by him lacking democratic process. (Justin was a bit of an authoritarian ruler.) So Justin, not knowing it would be his imminent demise in doing so, appointed a board of directors to run CFI:Canada.
The board consisted of some pretty professional people (Carol Parlow, Ian McCuaig, Ron Lindsay and Michael Gardiner) and some grassroots people (Kevin Smith, Lorne Trottier, Derek Rogers and Pat O’Brien). The board was good to go, at first. They agreed to start getting CFI:Canada on track with ‘nitty gritty’ details like starting to do the finance correctly, cleaning up the space, doing some branding work and amping up the fundraising efforts.
Earlier this year Justin decided to run for the Green Party of Canada. Since this is a direct conflict with charity law (you can’t mix politics and charity here in Canada, not sure about the US of A) Justin was put on a temporary leave of absence until the campaign was over and Derek Pert took his place. Derek is a very different person than Justin. Justin can be described as firey, active and passionate. Derek can be described as professional, tidy and detail oriented – definitely not an activist. But this is what CFI:Canada needed, someone to get all the paperwork, donors and volunteers in line and to make a system that was sustainable for future growth.
This is where it gets tricky, fuzzy and confusing.
While Justin was out doing his thing with the GOP the board began uncovering things about Justin’s time at CFI and one of them (who is a law student) began to see that… “Holy crap batman! We are all liable for all this really bad stuff that he did!” … What kind of bad stuff? Well, I can only guess, but from my experience working there as Ontario Director I would say… improper bookkeeping, personal banking interfering with business banking (not maliciously or intentionally, just out of pure lack of understanding), charity paperwork not being done correctly… Not to mention Justin’s frequent diversion into Men’s Rights Activism (using CFI contacts to promote this issue that many CFI-ers do NOT support… and think it is a determent to women in the/who want to join the movement to have to deal with someone who is so vocal about this) and consistently blurring the lines between charity and politics.
Well – Justin was fired permanently. At a vote of 5-2-2 (Justin’s uncle and Kevin Smith voted against it, while the CFI:Transnational representation abstained).
That when I started getting phone calls.
I used to be an active member of this group, and remain friends with a lot of people involved… so they wanted to talk to me about it. This is when I started to see the two sides emerge.
A close friend of mine called me up to let me know what is going on, he also happens to be on the board and is actually an avid Justin supporter. He thought that there was a crusade against Justin happening and that it needed to stop because Justin is too good for the organization to be kicked out of it.
Apparently the new director told Justin that CFI:Canada would no longer have any communication with him what-so-ever because he had been consistently bothering the board and Derek (the new director) about rejoining CFI in some capacity. From what I understand they first told Justin to just wait a little while… but Justin couldn’t wait and kept pressing so they cut him off.
At this point in the story I was pretty pissed off! Justin is an overall good thing for CFI:Canada, how could they do this?!
So I called Justin and he asked me to write a letter of support. However, I’m not one to jump on the wagon without knowing the other side. Luckily another board member contacted me, this time someone from the “other side”.
As it turned out the board was indeed worried about being liable for some of the stuff going on and there was a legitimate vote for dismissing Justin. The board saw it best to distance itself from someone who has a pretty bad track record and to start rebuilding CFI as a more professional organization, just like CFI:Transnational did. They had to move away from the grassroots to continue their success.
So now I was less pissed off. Still upset that the founder of this organization had been booted, but now I understood why. Content with that information I went back to my school work, until a few days ago when I got a FB message from 5 different people involved.
Key volunteers were starting to question the board about Justin’s dismissal, the lack of events going on in the centre and the new decision to do less community work. The board is caught in a bit of a bind here – because they can’t really come out and say exactly what is going on because there are privacy issues and in Canada it is illegal to openly tell everyone why you fired an employee, so they can’t come out and tell everyone about Justin’s shortcomings and unprofessional business ethic. They issued a few public statements, trying to calm the crowd, about creating a new vision and regular programming commencing soon, but that didn’t satisfy the grassroots, emotional activists.
Apparently… Justin took a bunch of crazy pills and flew into a tizzy. He started rallying support from friends and colleagues to start a phone tree to ask scripted questions about Justin’s dismissal occupying hours of Derek’s time. He also had people writing letters to support him. His uncle, who is on the board, began bribing the charity saying that he would give a $100K donation to CFI:Canada *IF* Justin was reinstated (gross and corrupt, right?).
Well Derek couldn’t handle this and on the 23th of November the best thing to happen to CFI:Canada in a long time… resigned. The following day 3 members of the board (who are on the “professional” side of this) also resigned due to constant conflict between board members. (By the sounds of things they were exchanging MANY e-mails a day between one another that were hostile in language – at least some of the ones I’ve read were…) So the professional side lost because the grassroots were too emotional, pushy and time consuming for people who have real jobs.
The board issued a letter explaining the changes and saying that Michael Payton is the new interim director (also a men’s rights activist and who I think is sort of questionable in character).
Also, recently there have been more resignations by key volunteers and Vancouver community leaders (including their director) who have decided to step down. CFI:Canada is losing its key volunteer base, this will be a hard one to bounce back from.
It’s all very sad. CFI:Canada was the leading voice for scepticism and science education here in Canada and now it is hardcore shooting it’s self in the foot. Who wants to be involved with an organization that won’t heed the advice of the professionals on its board? If CFI:Canada is ever audited by the government I think there will be really big problems revealed. If Justin is reinstated onto the board than the last few months of pain have been totally wasted… and I say this as someone who sees the value in Justin’s work and consider myself his friend. CFI needs a leader like Derek who can keep shit together, but a voice like Justin who can be heard and fight the good fight.
Grassroots vs. professionalism – they have managed to work together in many places, but it seems like the freethought movement of Canada isn’t willing to do that… which, to me, means large failures for the movement. Without a board that can work together, volunteers that aren’t rallying against their own organization and board members who aren’t corrupt than CFI:Canada has a very sad future ahead of it.
*EDIT*: All of the information here was obtained from various blogs across the interwebz, talking to board members and personal experience. Specifically the allegation about Lorne Trottier bribing the board was made public by former board member Ian McCuaig.
*EDIT*: From Natalie, 7:45 pm PDT, 11/30/2011- Just a quick correction. The article states that Kevin Smith and Lorne Trottier voted against Justin Trottier’s dismissal. I’ve been informed that there were no votes against. The actual votes were 6 in favour, 1 abstention and 2 absent.