Three insiders take aim at CAS leadership
Three unhappy staffers from the Canadian AIDS Society (CAS) have blown the whistle on the organization, accusing its leadership of a lack of transparency and accountability to its members, a lack of vision, failure to honour the GIPA principles and inadequate consultation with the community in developing its strategic plans. In the letter, remarkable for its bluntness, they also cite a focus on internal funding issues rather than the needs of the community, and ask for help.
“We worry that without swift and decisive action now, CAS’ sustainability and credibility will be irreparably compromised” say the three authors, who, significantly, include second-in-command Kim Thomas as well as long-time employee Lynne Belle-Isle and Jeff Potts, a National Programs Consultant who is himself HIV-positive.
The unprecedented protest comes at a difficult time for CAS, its Chief Executive Officer Monique Doolittle-Romas and its new board chair, Gary Lacasse, both of whom come under fire in the letter.
Over the years, CAS has suffered from a reduction in government funding and resultant scale-down in its activities. It just can't do as much as it used to. That being said, recent member meetings have been marked by tears, acrimony and dissent, with last summer’s AGM in Ottawa being particularly acrimonious. That meeting resulted in withdrawal (in order to avoid rejection) of the Board’s strategic plan and very emotional resignations by two founding member organizations, including one of the most prominent in Canada, the Toronto PWA Foundation.
More recently the organization has come under fire for its much-criticized HIVAnonymous campaign, designed to bolster the National AIDS Walk, of which CAS is the lead organizer. That campaign was accused, including here on PositiveLite.com, of stigmatizing people living with HIV by more than a few who found it ill-conceived and offensive. Add to those troubles a letter signed by 26 member AIDS Service Organization complaining about CAS’ performance on the national stage. The letter's bottom line? We are not happy, they said, and CAS has to change.
Which takes us to THE letter. The three CAS whistleblowers say “For too long we have felt silenced in our positions, and watched as the community-based movement that we live to serve has struggled with issues centred in the leadership at CAS. We have long-held our own opinions and concerns, but felt and, in some cases, were directed to refrain from expressing them.”
They add “We brought our concerns to the leadership of CAS yesterday. We asked for a meeting with the Board Chair to discuss them. We were advised that the Board takes our concerns seriously, but our request for a meeting today was not granted. We were instructed not to communicate with you. We have lost confidence in the leadership of CAS’ board and Chief Executive Officer.”
The three writer-insiders are asking readers for help. “We want to work with you to develop a responsible plan for moving forward. We want to remain at CAS and we want to bring about critical change, but we acknowledge that the result of our communication with you may result in our severance from CAS. This is difficult for us, but we remain committed to the cause and ask that right now you take the time to reflect on what seems to have happened to CAS in recent years and lend your voice to find and implement sound solutions.”
The three signatories to the letter hope people will make their views known by writing to CAS Board Chair Lacasse by October 7. The full text of their letter is below.
What I think
In the interests of full disclosure I need to say that I have been a supporter of CAS for many of my 22 years of living with HIV. In fact I was on their board for two terms. It was a difficult time though even then, a decade or so ago. But I grew to like Monique, a lot in fact, and respected (and still do) her passion and commitment to the movement.
My willingness to show support for the organization was shaken this summer, however, with a disastrous Annual General Meeting in Ottawa that achieved nothing of any worth but rather exposed CAS’ flaws in full view. Worse, it further eroded member confidence and pitted member against member, person living with HIV against person living with HIV. (Some cynics remarked this was exactly what the government wanted.) So the Forum for people living with HIV that preceded it, arguably CAS’ remaining asset of value, felt sad and unsatisfying for many. I was one.
I hate to see people who I have admired for their commitment to the movement reduced to tears in sheer disappointment and frustration – and then resign. But that’s what happened in Ottawa this year. This was not the CAS that I had fond memories of, the CAS that was formed to fight social injustice, to support each other, to be the proud figurehead of our movement,
My confidence in CAS was further shaken by their 2015 National AIDS Walk campaign, a campaign which was supposedly designed to expose the impact of HIV stigma, but instead deftly stigmatized us all. That campaign, a slap in the face for this long-term survivor, put me firmly on the path of questioning the worth of CAS in its current incarnation.
That's not to say that reading the letter from Kim, Lynne and Jeff wasn’t a huge surprise. Our community has become skilled at putting a lid on dissent. If the three CAS employees are to be believed, CAS likes to play that game too. “For too long we have felt silenced in our positions" they say. “We were instructed not to communicate with you" they say. So it was a shock to hear from three of our community who broke the fetters and spoke out. That in itself – challenging the status quo and their right to be heard – is hugely commendable.
The fact is, though, that these three brave souls who have come forward are right. The organization has become dysfunctional. That is not up for debate. It is no longer responsive to its members. It is irrelevant as a national voice. It needs to change – and change quite radically – or sink into oblivion.
Oblivion would be a shame, A part of our history would be gone. An important and valuable opportunity for people living with HIV to meet each year at the Forum would be gone. A national voice for AIDS Service Organizations across the country would be gone. Any of those three virtues should be enough for us to want to save CAS. Collectively they add up to a strong case for preserving something of the dream that was, and could still be, CAS.
The emergence of CPPN/RCPS in recent months as a promising bona fide voice for people living with HIV in Canada should not change that, or dim that dream. There is room in the national landscape for a CAS and a CPPN/RCPS. How that will look needs to be worked out but there should be no rivalry between the two. If any perceive CPPN/RCPS as a threat, they do not get it, do not get GIPA, and need to be challenged.
True, outside events may overtake us. The fate of CAS is precarious even without this current turmoil. We know that the funders - in this case the Public Health Agency of Canada (an arm of the federal government) – are looking at how many national partners they would like to see populate the landscape. Their vision is cloudy; this is the government, after all. Certainly they have indicated a wish to fund fewer national partners and CAS in its present form is undeniably a potential casualty. I’ve already said the passing of CAS would be a sad day indeed for the Canadian AIDS movement. I think with work, and with new faces at the table, CAS could perhaps be not just salvaged but be transformed. That’s why I like what the group of three who signed the letter is trying to achieve.
Their’s is a plea for help. “We want to work with you to find effective solutions that address your concerns and ours without further delay” they say. These are honourable people. I know all three of them. I respect them. I am in awe of their bravery. You should listen to them.
The letter is short on specifics. How does one rescue what has the appearance of a sinking ship and transform it into something that not only floats but inspires, that we can all be proud of and confident that is speaks for us in a way we can approve of and endorse? It’s a daunting task. But as a community we are nothing if not resilient, inventive and committed to what we believe in. There are people in our midst who can do it.
I join with others in believing that underneath all the ruckus, the dissent and the angst, there is something worth saving here. Our dreams and our history will always be worth preserving. So I earnestly hope we as a community put an end to the questioning phase and move to phase two.
In phase two we bite the bullet and identify those who can best do the job of leading the organization forward. Then in phase three we rally together behind them, pull up our sleeves and get to work in forging a model organization that represents the interests of all of us, individuals and organizations alike, on the national stage.
We owe ourselves, and those who have gone before us, nothing less.
Here is the full text of the open letter from the three CAS employees.
CAS Members (past and present), people living with, at risk of, and affected by HIV/AIDS, and friends of CAS,
We are writing to you to seek your support. For too long we have felt silenced in our positions, and watched as the community-based movement that we live to serve has struggled with issues centred in the leadership at CAS. We have long-held our own opinions and concerns, but felt and, in some cases, were directed to refrain from expressing them. Today, we add our voices and share our concerns with respect to leadership issues that many of you have already raised. We want to stand united. We are committed to working with you to address our collective concerns, and to explore opportunities that, if acted upon swiftly and decisively, will serve as course-correction for CAS, and will fix the issues that many feel have been plaguing CAS for years.
You know us, you know our commitment – we are the National Programs Team for the Canadian AIDS Society – and today we stand with you to say enough is enough. Together, we represent more than 50 years of experience in the national response to HIV/AIDS in Canada, and 25 years of lived experience. We strive for an open and collaborative approach to engaging our members and people living with, at risk of and affected by HIV from across the country. We strive to facilitate your meaningful engagement and to protect the role that CAS has and should continue to play in representing your best interests and ensuring that your voices are heard and respected in issues that affect you.
We brought our concerns to the leadership of CAS yesterday. We asked for a meeting with the Board Chair to discuss them. We were advised that the Board takes our concerns seriously, but our request for a meeting today was not granted. We were instructed not to communicate with you. We have lost confidence in the leadership of CAS’ board and Chief Executive Officer. They have yet to respond to the well-documented concerns that many of you have raised, including but not necessarily limited to:
· A lack of transparency on how advocacy is done, and what is said on behalf of the community during meetings and consultations.
· The erosion of the GIPA principles at CAS, evidenced by the outcry from the People Living with HIV/AIDS Forum in 2015, and the recent withdrawal of two of the founding CAS members, other notable withdrawals over time, and paid-staff turnover.
· A lack of accountability from CAS to its members, and the change in focus from the community needs to the financial needs of the organization.
· The delivery of not one, but two strategic plans that completely disregarded the input of the community and in the case of the last one, was not consulted upon widely enough.
· A lack of vision and direction that reflects the real needs of the community –needs to address and advocate strongly on behalf of the community on numerous issues, not just those related to funding.
We worry that without swift and decisive action now, CAS’ sustainability and credibility will be irreparably compromised. We want to work with you find effective solutions that address your concerns and ours without further delay. We want to work with you now to tackle the serious concerns raised during the 2015 PLWHIV/AIDS Forum and Annual Meeting. We want to work with you to develop a responsible plan for moving forward. We want to remain at CAS and we want to bring about critical change, but we acknowledge that the result of our communication with you may result in our severance from CAS. This is difficult for us, but we remain committed to the cause and ask that right now you take the time to reflect on what seems to have happened to CAS in recent years and lend your voice to find and implement sound solutions.
Please reflect on this carefully and express your views in a written response to the Chair of CAS’ Board of Directors, Mr. Gary Lacasse (
) by 17:00 (Eastern-time) on Wednesday, October 7, 2015. Please copy us on your communications to
We need to be bold; the time is now. We need to acknowledge the erosion of trust in CAS, and to restore members’ faith in CAS’ stewardship. We need leadership that is open to change and always prepared to work with the natural leadership of others. Your voice matters to us.
Yours, with respect and in solidarity,
Kim Thomas, Lynne Belle-Isle, Jeff Potts