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Union calls for a seat at the table for reforms ordered at ‘toxic, racist’ York CAS

Staff experienced 'autocratic, deficit-based culture of fear' finds independent report


An independent probe of Ontario’s York Region Children’s Aid Society uncovered a toxic workplace, and its union is demanding a seat at the table as changes are contemplated.

OPSEU/SEFPO president Warren (Smokey) Thomas is calling on the board of directors for York CAS to include union members as it drafts a 30-day work plan ordered by the provincial government.

“An independent review has made it clear: the leadership at York CAS has failed the organization and the children it serves,” said Thomas. “Thanks to the tenacity and determination of the front-line workers at the agency, those leadership failures have now been exposed and confirmed.

“If the agency is going to heal and begin moving forward again, those front-line workers must have a real say in the reforms that are long overdue.”

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According to OPSEU, the independent report ordered by the Ministry of Children, Community, and Social Services found that senior management at York CAS has created a “toxic” environment in which a pervasive “culture of fear” and “racism and anti-Black racism” have left workers traumatized.

What the independent report found

The independent report stated that it received feedback from staff at all levels that “paint the picture of an organization where staff experienced an autocratic, deficit-based culture of fear that targeted dissent and enabled oppressive behaviours.”

It recommended that a new leadership direction and approach be put in place quickly, stating that actions must be taken to create engagement toward a better workplace culture that is “respectful, healthy and collaborative.”

It called on York CAS to:

  • adopt clear change management strategies
  • develop a transparent, open and structured communications plan
  • prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion in the society’s human resources strategy
  • build and implement a wellness framework to support staff and reduce work-related stress and burnout
  • develop strong processes for measuring and understanding the health of the workplace
  • develop an effective staff issue resolution process
  • develop a process for assessing workload issues in all areas so that these issues can be addressed.

York CAS said the review process will help the organization “identify and immediately address” the concerns raised.

“We care about our staff and are committed to doing everything possible to ensure a truly healthy, inclusive and positive work environment and organizational culture,” said board chair Tahir Shafiq. “The board has no tolerance for racism, discrimination, bullying or harassment of any kind. We know there is a lot to do to ensure all of our practices and organizational behaviour meet, and eventually exceed, the recommendations indicated in the Ministry report. I know our Board and the agency are ready to meet this challenge. “

Union surveyed staff

The union said the ministry ordered that report after the executive of OPSEU Local 304 did a survey of staff that found an overwhelming number were experiencing depression, panic, and emotional breakdowns because of the workplace culture.

Shafiq held a meeting on Monday with staff about the report, but the union said many were left disappointed.

“For years, we’ve been telling the employer that we and the services we provide are hurting. And for months, the board has stood behind the senior managers,” said OPSEU/SEFPO Local 304 president Andrew Harrigan. “Even with this damning report in his hands, the board chair did little this morning to reassure us that the board is ready to take real action against the harassment and racism we face.”

OPSEU/SEFPO first-vice president/treasurer Eduardo Almeida said the board would be negligent not to involve the front-line workers in its plan for the future.

“With courage and conviction, these front-line workers have been fighting for months to fix their broken agency,” said Almeida.

“They’re a credit to children’s aid because they’re putting the families and children they care for above their own safety and security.

“To not involve them in the needed reforms would be as shameful as the management malpractice that they helped expose.”

York CAS posted the full report on its website, available at http://www.yorkcas.org/pdfs/operational_review_Nov2020.pdf