Politics·CBC Investigates

National Indigenous women's organization accused of union-busting as it lays off dozens of staff

The most prominent Indigenous women’s organization in Canada is undergoing a federal financial audit where preliminary evidence of “ineligible expenses” was found, while facing union-busting allegations following a mass round of layoffs, CBC News has learned.

78 employees let go while non-profit plans boutique hotel with spa, convention centre

An Indigenous organization's CEO speaks in front of a floral backdrop.
Lynne Groulx, chief executive officer of the Native Women's Association of Canada, blames a lack of stable funding from the federal government for triggering a mass staff layoff at the organization. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The most prominent Indigenous women's organization in Canada is undergoing a federal financial audit where preliminary evidence of "ineligible expenses" was found, while facing union-busting allegations following a mass round of layoffs, CBC News has learned.

The Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC), which relies on federal dollars to operate, is battling complaints filed to the Ontario and Quebec labour boards from employees, who allege they were terminated after organizing a union drive.

At the same time, NWAC is letting go of 78 employees — or roughly half its staff — as it blames the federal government for a lack of funding.

The turmoil is rocking the national advocacy organization founded 50 years ago to enhance the well-being of First Nations, Inuit and Métis women.

WATCH | Troubles face Indigenous women's advocacy organization: 

Indigenous women's rights group accused of betraying its mission

2 months ago
Duration 2:43
The non-profit Native Women's Association of Canada has laid off roughly half of its workforce as it makes plans to build businesses, which critics say betrays its mission of promoting the well-being of Indigenous women.

Former NWAC employee Crystal Semaganis said the non-profit needs a major overhaul.

Semaganis, who is from Little Pine First Nation in Saskatchewan, was hired as a knowledge keeper in 2021 to lead art workshops, conduct prayers and provide cultural support.

She said she quit in April 2023 after being tired of feeling constantly devalued.

NWAC has "become an elitist model that's so far disconnected from Indigenous women," Semaganis said.

"I would rather be poor than work where I'm treated like I don't matter."

NWAC told CBC News it's unable to comment on specific personnel issues, but added that it has a zero-tolerance policy regarding discrimination in the workplace.

Mass layoffs an 'opportunistic tactic,' complaint alleges

NWAC confirmed recent layoffs include 33 permanent staff and 45 others, whose contracts will not be renewed because of an end in program funding.

After CBC News inquired about the dismissals, NWAC issued a media release stating it's forced to cut its workforce because of the termination of a national apprenticeship program and other government-funded projects.

Employment and Social Development Canada, which funded the apprenticeship program, told CBC News it's not terminating the project because it was always scheduled to end on March 31.

In a complaint before the Ontario Labour Relations Board, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) alleges NWAC used the sunset of the apprenticeship program to eliminate staff involved in unionizing.

It alleges NWAC terminated a number of inside organizers and union supporters, including those working on projects fully funded by the federal government for several more years.

"The mass layoffs planned by the employer are an opportunistic tactic," the complaint alleges.

Quebec's labour board received three similar complaints, along with an application for union certification, which was also filed in Ontario.

WATCH | 'It's supposed to be advocating on our behalf': 

Concerns NWAC straying from its mandate

2 months ago
Duration 0:52
Mi'kmaq lawyer Pam Palmater says the Native Women's Association of Canada shouldn't be planning a boutique hotel.

The Ontario complaint says dismissal notices began in February, one month after employees started a union campaign.

It further alleges NWAC opposed PSAC's application to create a bargaining unit because all but one of the employees who would be in the unit received a layoff notice.

PSAC declined CBC's interview request.

"If those allegations are true … then it sounds like a classic case of union-busting," said Mi'kmaq lawyer Pam Palmater.

NWAC denies the allegations.

In a statement to CBC News, the organization said it respects staff's right to organize and will respond to the complaints.

NWAC accuses employees of acts of sabotage

CBC News spoke to more than a dozen current and former NWAC employees who said they want to unionize because of high rates of turnover and fear of reprisal from management.

"Having a union would add a layer of protection for the staff so that they were able to voice their concerns without the fear of being terminated," said one insider who CBC News is not identifying because they fear retaliation.

Since the layoffs began, CBC News has learned NWAC recently placed an undisclosed number of staff under suspension with pay for an investigation "concerning acts of sabotage."

After CBC reached out for comment, the organization didn't elaborate on what's implied by "acts of sabotage," but confirmed it appointed an independent investigator to look into the matter.

NWAC said its projected revenues are dropping by $39 million — from $49 million in 2023 to $10 million this year — because it's losing 24 projects.

Lynne Groulx, the association's chief executive officer, declined CBC's request for an interview.

"While we understand the frustration of the staff and their right to make their complaints, at the same time, it is unfortunate that their frustration is not directed toward the government of Canada," Groulx said in a statement to CBC News.

"Some have decided to retaliate by spreading misinformation to impugn the reputation of NWAC."

36 of 50 NWAC projects audited

The labour strife comes as an ongoing audit by Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC) and Indigenous Services Canada found evidence NWAC used federal funds in ways that were not approved, according to September 2023 internal NWAC memos obtained by CBC News.

The memos don't say what the alleged ineligible expenses are. But documents say the audit focused on 36 of 50 projects the federal department funded, which NWAC called heavy-handed.

"A more typical number of audits is two or three per year," one of the memos said.

The documents show the federal department threatened to freeze the association's core funding.

NWAC said preliminary audit findings contained errors, which it feared could lead to misinformation, and sought clarification.

"The term 'ineligible expenses' is not defined within the agreements, leading to confusion, to NWAC's disadvantage within the audit findings," one of the memos said.

"NWAC requires time to review every instance of alleged spending of ineligible expenses and will require clarity on how and where this term is defined."

WATCH | 'I'm not valued at this organization': 

Former NWAC employee speaks out

2 months ago
Duration 1:09
Crystal Semaganis explains why she left the Native Women's Association of Canada.

The department told CBC News the federal audit was triggered based on the value of NWAC's funding agreement and the length of time since its last audit, which was approximately 10 years.

The federal department also said the audit is focused on NWAC's use of federal funds in the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 fiscal years, which NWAC's audited financial statements show were $13.5 million and $13.2 million.

NWAC confirmed it receives funding from various federal departments, provincial governments and the private sector. 

CIRNAC said it's providing NWAC with $1 million in operations funding each year until 2027-28, and it's also in discussions to renew a funding agreement that's provided $14.7 million to the organization since 2018.

Groulx said NWAC provided all backup information to support that its expenses were eligible and is in the process of providing additional details to complete the audit.

Eyeing hotel, art gallery and convention centre

While NWAC faces financial scrutiny from Ottawa, Groulx said it's developing additional revenue streams to lessen its dependence on federal funding.

It already operates a café and artisan store in its Gatineau, Que., headquarters.

Now CBC News has learned NWAC is also looking to develop a boutique hotel and convention centre nearby.

NWAC received $100,000 from Indigenous Services Canada to hire a consulting firm to conduct a feasibility study for the project.

Plans reviewed by CBC News show the hotel would include an art gallery, a cultural spa with traditional medicine bath and a full-service restaurant and lounge.

Groulx said NWAC's social business projects are meant to generate revenues to invest into programming and community.

A panel of dolls representing Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
A panel from the Faceless Dolls Project, which invited family members to commemorate loved ones who were among the many missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, is seen at the new head office of the Native Women’s Association of Canada in Gatineau, Que., on June 20, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

But more than a dozen current and former employees who spoke with CBC News raised concerns about the non-profit's new focus, especially while layoffs occur.

"It's honestly a slap in the face," said one insider, whose identity CBC News agreed to protect because they fear retaliation from the organization.

"It's definitely not aligned with NWAC's mission."

On its website, NWAC states its mission is to: "Advocate for and inspire Indigenous women, girls, two-spirit, transgender and gender-diverse people, and the families of many Indigenous nations."

Semaganis said NWAC needs to rethink how it spends its money and who it serves.

"These resources are being spent on something elite that people like me will never use," Semaganis said.

"I don't understand how they could possibly justify that to our people, to our chiefs, to our people without housing."

Board members stay at healing lodges

NWAC additionally owns two properties, one in Gagetown, N.B., and the other in Chelsea, Que., just north of Ottawa, for healing retreats.

The organization said the lodges are funded by the federal and provincial governments and the private sector.

The Gagetown lodge sits on a 6.5-hectare property that NWAC says is used for land-based and Indigenous agricultural activity. The Chelsea lodge, valued at $1.3 million, includes an indoor pool, sauna and hot tub.

Current and former employees who spoke to CBC News scrutinized the lodges.

"The only people allowed to go into the resiliency lodges were those who had status, so for example MPs or CEOs, and those select few Indigenous women who had ties to NWAC," said a second insider, whose identity CBC News agreed to protect because they also fear retaliation.

"There was no way for victims of violence or those who are fleeing unsafe situations to formally apply."

Two people walking towards a large house on the top of a green grassy hill
The Native Women's Association of Canada recently opened a resiliency lodge in Gagetown, N.B. (Submitted by Native Women’s Association of Canada)

Over the past year, internal documents show the lodges hosted 26 in-person events and 47 online events. There were also 24 individual overnight stays.

NWAC told CBC News it wishes it could accommodate the high demand for healing retreats at its lodges, but does not have anywhere near the budget to do so.

It also confirmed NWAC board members have stayed at the Chelsea lodge.

"Our board members are front line workers who deal with very sensitive, contentious and demanding issues on a daily basis," NWAC said in a statement.

"They have visited the lodge to familiarize themselves with the facility and, from time to time, they require healing, too."

28 apprenticeships signed up for $54M program

Over the last two years, Employment and Social Development Canada provided NWAC with $54 million to set up a minimum of 4,000 apprenticeships for Indigenous women in the skilled trades.

CBC News has learned NWAC set up a total of 28 apprenticeships, which represents less than one per cent of the expected minimum.

Nine apprentices were terminated. Nineteen apprentices remain in their positions.

"It's shocking and appalling," said Palmater, chair in Indigenous governance at Toronto Metropolitan University.

"The fact that it was supposed to set up 4,000 and it's less than 20 is an epic failure on their part."

Groulx said in a statement that the apprenticeship program had many challenges, including narrow trades that didn't capture many interests of Indigenous women.

"For a program like this to succeed, it needs to be run over a substantially longer period of time."

Groulx said NWAC spent $13 million on national media campaigns, program infrastructure, outreach and staffing costs.

She said the leftover $39.8 million will be returned to the government.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.

With files from CBC's Marnie Luke and Albert Leung