Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Implosion of CFI Canada

The Centre for Inquiry - Canada "... promotes and advances reason, science, secularism and freedom of inquiry in all areas of human endeavour." It is affiliated with the Center for Inquiry in the United States, headquartered in Amherst, New York (near Buffalo).

The Canadian Centre for Inquiry was founded in 2007 and the inaugural meeting was held in their rented facilities just south of the University of Toronto and a short walk from my office [Centre for Inquiry: March 10, 2007]. Justin Trottier was the new director.

CFI - Canada has now grown from the original Toronto (Ontario) branch to include branches in Vancouver, Okanagan, Calgary, Saskatchewan, Ottawa, Montreal, and Nova Scotia. There's paid staff in Toronto and there are now paid employees (usually part time) in several other centres.

Justin Trottier has played a huge role in developing CFI into a national organization. In addition to the formal centres, CFI is affiliated with dozens of other organizations across Canada. I admire Justin for the tremendous efforts he has put into building CFI Canada and, especially, for recruiting students. Unfortunately, the qualities I admire in Justin are exactly the same qualities that turn some people off. The squabbles at CFI are part of a larger disagreement between accommodationists and confrontationists. I agree with The Good Atheist, Jacob Fortin, when he says [CFI Canada Members have a lot to be worried about] ...
As the former National Director of the Center for Inquiry Canada, Justin Trottier clearly fell into the Confrontationalist camp. From his early days as a student activist at the University of Toronto, Justin was instrumental in breathing life into CFI. In it’s early days, his personality and vision allowed the organization to grow. His management style, unfortunately, tended to make him few friends. Still, one of the main reason why the organization has been so successful as of late is because of his relentless activism and his ability to “get the job done”. The whole reason CFI even exists in Canada is largely his doing. Say what you will about him: Justin has drive, and the growth of the organization would have been impossible without his passion.
A few months ago, Justin Trottier was fired by the Board of Directors. He was replaced by Derek Pert as National Executive Director. Derek is a very different person than Justin. The goal was to put the management of CFI Canada into the hands of a more competent manager who would spend less time as an advocate of certain causes. (Some of Justin's causes weren't closely associated with the mandate of CFI—this was definitely a problem.)

On Monday, Nov. 21, 2011, Derek sought support from the Board of Directors. He was concerned that recent events had undermined his authority. The Board of Directors apparently failed to show support for Derek so he resigned on Wednesday. The following day, Thursday, November 24, 2011, the Chair of the Board of Directors, Carol Parlow, resigned along with Michael Gardiner and Ian McCuaig. You can read the "official" version of the story on Canadian Atheist [Dear Colleagues ...]. Good luck trying to figure out what's going on.

Ian Bushfield has another version of events from the position of someone who was not a great fan of Ian Trottier [CFI Canada: Half-truths and scandal].

Zak, a friend of Justin's, has a different take [CFI:Canada’s identity crisis]. (I really don't like linking to Zak's post on Canadian Atheist since he doesn't reveal his name. I'll make an exception this time but if this crisis continues I'll ignore all anonymous or pseudoanonymous bloggers.)

I don't know much about the Board of Directors even though I'm a CFI Canada Advisory Fellow. This could be because I haven't been paying attention but I don't think I'm entirely to blame for the lack of information; for example, if you check out the CFI website you'll see that it's hopelessly out-of-date. There's nothing on the website to indicate that the organization is in (possibly fatal) turmoil.

Here's a list of present and former directors:
  • Carol Parlow (clinical psychiatrist, Oakville, Ontario)
  • Richard Thain (Humanist Association, Ottawa, Ontario)
  • Kevin Smith (happy atheist, Toronto, Ontario), Secretary
  • Lorne Trottier (wealthy member of the Order of Canada, and Justin Trottier's uncle, Montreal, Quebec)
  • Pat O’Brien (member, CFI Vancouver)
  • Derek Rodgers (student, University of Dalhousis, Halifax, Nova Scotia)
  • Ronald Lindsay (President and CEO of Center for Inquiry, United States)
  • Barry Karr (Executive Director of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), Amherst, New York)
  • Tom Flynn (Executive Director of The Council for Secular Humanism, Amherst, New York)
  • Michael Gardiner (Canadian Federation of Students?)
  • Ian McCuaig (?)
A meeting with the Board of Directors has been scheduled for December 11, 2011. I don't know where this meeting is going to be held and I don't know who can attend. This is typical of CFI Canada. Nobody ever knows what's going on.

If, as I suspect, this is an open meeting, then it's a good time to challenge the current directors and try to get some new directors who can fix the problems at CFI Canada. Otherwise, I fear it is doomed to death by suicide.


21 comments :

  1. I vote Michael Payton! Whether he wants to or not.

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  2. Just asked Michael whether he'd put his name forward, he told me that he was voted in yesterday:

    "You must be psychic... I got voted in as national director yesterday"


    I hope he'd not pulling my leg.

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  3. piprod01

    Michael Payton is not pulling your leg.

    See http://canadianatheist.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/CFI-board-letter.pdf

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  4. As long as we keep having these accomodationist vs confrontationalist arguments we will continue to have implosions. Frankly, it disgusts me that we have done this. I felt the wrath of the accomodationsts when I was known for being a confrontationalist.

    I have always supported their efforts, and think they should support mine. We must embrace each other even when we don't completely agree. Part of the reason I started atheismunited.com was to show people how there can be a united front. I look forward to universally supporting both camps.

    Please people, ponder it... we must work together, share a planet together. We can't make such a big deal over tact and approach. Vocalize your disagreement so that it your position is known, but you can't let it get to the point where you are shooting yourself in the foot.

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  5. Full disclosure: I am president of CFI-Ottawa (one of the branches that is completely run by volunteers). The meltdown at the board is certainly of concern to all of us who are members, volunteers, and supporters of CFI.

    I acknowledge that here in Ottawa we are often "out of the loop" with respect to the goings-on at national. However, I have not seen any evidence of a confrontationalist vs accommodationist polarization in this controversy, at least with respect to atheism/secularism. Ian Bushfield does a good job of summarizing the same issues I have seen with Justin's style.

    Of particular concern to me is the apparent increase in Justin's involvement and identification with men's rights activism (he is president of the Toronto's Men's Issues Awareness Campaign). While I am sympathetic to some of the issues that have been raised by MRA groups, I think that at a time when most atheist organizations are trying to increase participation of women, having an official spokesperson with strong MRA associations risks sending the wrong message (and the interim NED, Michael Payton, is also listed as the official spokesperson for the
    Toronto's Men's Issues Awareness Campaign).

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  6. Michael Gardiner of the Canadian Federation of Students? Jesus Christ....Michael Gardiner is a businessman and experienced board member. It's no wonder that there's so much rumour and innuendo going around...

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  7. Also, I have no idea where the notion that this debate was over confrontationist vs. accommodationist perspectives is coming from. Just because Derek had a different personality and management style than Justin doesn't mean he was an accommodationist or was planning to reduce CFI's activism activities. It had everything to do with getting a leader who could competently manage, organize, and take this growing organization to the next level. CFI behind the scenes was a bit of a mess (lack of organization, financial instability) and Derek was well poised to make it a sustainable organization. Hopefully the board can recruit someone else to do the job as well as he could have.

    Larry, you're doing CFI a disservice by rumour-mongering. Nothing that's been posted by anyone except the board has very much basis in fact or evidence. The CFI board will have a lot to do to recover from the damage and misinformation spread by bloggers over the last couple of days. It's a shame.

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  8. KGB says,

    Michael Gardiner of the Canadian Federation of Students? Jesus Christ....Michael Gardiner is a businessman and experienced board member. It's no wonder that there's so much rumour and innuendo going around...

    I've been associated with CFI from the beginning and I didn't know who he was. I Goggled his name and came up with two possibilities. One of them was president of the Canadian Federation of Students so I put it down with a question mark.

    Don't you see what the problem is? Rumour and innuendo are rampant because most of us don't know what's going on. That's not our fault. You're blaming the wrong people.

    Why don't you try and help put by explaining who these directors are (were) and what qualifies them to be on the Board of Directors. And if you know so much, why not tell us what's going to happen on December 11th?

    Oh, and if it's not too much trouble, why not tell us who you are?

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  9. Larry Moran said...

    "I really don't like linking to Zak's post on Canadian Atheist since he doesn't reveal his name. I'll make an exception this time but if this crisis continues I'll ignore all anonymous or pseudoanonymous bloggers."

    If you don't like linking to Zak's post because he doesn't reveal his name, why do you allow comments from piprod01 and KGB? Isn't it time you insisted that the people on your blog use their own name, especially the ones who call themselves anonymous, or their comment will not be posted?

    Veronica Abbass
    http://canadianatheist.com/

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  10. KGB says,

    Also, I have no idea where the notion that this debate was over confrontationist vs. accommodationist perspectives is coming from.

    Too bad you haven't been paying attention.

    I'm not saying that there's nothing else going on here—clearly there are many reasons why some people don't like Justin—but part of it is the mission of CFI and whether it's going to be accommodationist or confrontationalist.

    I've been at many meetings where this has come up.

    Have you been paying attention to the problems with CFI United States and the position that Ronald Lindsay has taken on some issues? Should CFI Canada be supporting militant atheism or should it tilt toward pushing the presumed benefits of secular humanism?

    Larry, you're doing CFI a disservice by rumour-mongering. Nothing that's been posted by anyone except the board has very much basis in fact or evidence.

    And I'm supposed to know this, how? As a critical thinking skeptic, it seems blatantly obvious that the statements by the board of directors are incomplete or misleading, or both. They are likely self-serving. And let's not forget that for several months there were NO statements from the Board of Directors about what was going on.

    I have read the latest statements very carefully and I have no idea why three directors resigned. This is not an example of good communication skills; instead, it's guarenteed to provoke speculation and guessing.

    The CFI board will have a lot to do to recover from the damage and misinformation spread by bloggers over the last couple of days. It's a shame.

    They got themselves into that mess. Now let's see how good a job they do getting out of it. So far, it doesn't look very promising.

    They could easily start by explaining what the December 11th meeting is about and who can attend. How difficult is that?

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  11. I'm just a supporter and occasional volunteer at CFI (not in Ontario). I'm interested in the work that the organization does, especially since my interactions with Derek Pert were always very productive and positive - I always found him very forthcoming. My information comes from speaking with a board member weeks ago to obtain more information about who the members are (which they were happy to provide). It didn't take that much work. All of this information was easy to obtain and quite easily corroborated. Maybe the board is being less forthcoming now that this conflict has occurred.

    All of the members of the board are/were long-time atheist/humanist/secularist advocates in one capacity or another, whether being involved initially with CFI or with other organization across Canada. They are just average people like you or I with an interest in CFI's success. The exceptions are Michael Gardiner, a business man from Toronto and professional board member with an interest in atheism/secular humanist issues who joined the board in the Summer of 2011 (http://www.hbstoronto.ca/article.html?aid=158), and Lorne Trottier, Justin's uncle and one of CFI's two major donors, who was picked by Justin to sit on the board (along with most of the other members). Justin chose the initial three board members (Carol Parlow, Richard Thain, Kevin Smith) and the rest were added (mostly still by Justin) until the board was large enough to vote on new members on its own. Not exactly democratic, but it seemed to have been functioning reasonably well until recently. And as a new charitable organization, you have to start somewhere I guess.

    I don't claim to know anything beyond that and everything anyone says (except the board members) should be taken with a grain of salt. I took some time to contact the board and Derek several weeks ago to find out more when I was thinking about getting involved, and that's what I gleaned. I didn't know that the organization was going to split like this at the time, but I did know that there was significant conflict with Justin, being a former employee, and Lorne Trottier, who has recently been emailing volunteers and stakeholders to express displeasure about Justin's termination.

    From what the board has released, it appears that the December 11th meeting is for the board and associate members to determine who is best to lead the organization as NED from this point on. Maybe you should email the board, I'm sure they'd be happy to provide more information.

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  12. Seanna Watson says,

    ... and the interim NED, Michael Payton, is also listed as the official spokesperson for the Toronto's Men's Issues Awareness Campaign.

    I noticed that.

    Sort of makes you wonder what the hell's going on, doesn't it?

    You'd think that, given all the complaints and criticism, it would be completely idiotic for the Board of Directors to hire someone like that.

    I'm sure there's a reasonable explanation and we just have to wait a few hours before we see a statement from the Board that explains everything.

    I'm not holding my breath, are you?

    P.S. I live in Toronto and I'm just as much out of the loop as you.

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  13. KGB says,

    ... From what the board has released, it appears that the December 11th meeting is for the board and associate members ...

    You seem to be very good at finding out information. Could you find out what an "associate member" is and how we can identify them? I'd be happy to post this information on my blog.

    One other thing. It might be helpful to know where the meeting is being held and the time of day. The Board of Directors seems to have forgotten to include that, admittedly trivial, bit of information.

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  14. I'm not saying that there's nothing else going on here—clearly there are many reasons why some people don't like Justin—but part of it is the mission of CFI and whether it's going to be accommodationist or confrontationalist.

    You're right that this is an overarching, constant theme in deciding how secular organizations should be run. But there's just no evidence that this was the central point of conflict here. The board has always been quick to praise Justin for his media skills and the work he's done to give CFI a higher profile. Those are all great, and I don't think anyone has a major problem the work he did in that regard. The problems were related to his organizational skills, professionalism, and people skills. These are all important when running a volunteer charitable organization and the board obviously decided that someone with more competence in these areas was a better fit for director at this time.

    In my experience, the board has always been happy to provide information when requested. I just seems like people have bothered to take the time to ask and are relying on hearsay from others at this point.

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  15. ^^ *haven't taken the time. Typos galore!

    You seem to be very good at finding out information. Could you find out what an "associate member" is and how we can identify them? I'd be happy to post this information on my blog.

    One other thing. It might be helpful to know where the meeting is being held and the time of day. The Board of Directors seems to have forgotten to include that, admittedly trivial, bit of information.


    I don't know, Larry. You seem like a pretty smart guy. I have a lot of confidence that you could find out this information by contacting the board, just like I did.

    I can give you a little head-start though. Information about associate membership, and other relevant goodies, are all found in CFI's constitution and by-laws. Since CFI is a legal charitable organization, that information is available to you if you want it. Check it out. It's a boring read though.

    I don't particularly care about the meeting on December 11th, because I won't be able to attend and am probably not able to anyway. I doubt it's open to the public, since it's a meeting of the board and associate members only. I agree that it would serve the board well to provide more information about what this meeting is all about, and they should do so.

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  16. KGB says,

    In my experience, the board has always been happy to provide information when requested. I just seems like people have bothered to take the time to ask and are relying on hearsay from others at this point.

    I've sent off an email message to one of the Directors. I'll report back as soon as they provide useful information.

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  17. There is a comment from Ian M (whom I suspect is Ian Ian McCuaig under The Good Atheist post "CFI Canada gets a shake-up, comes clean." http://www.thegoodatheist.net/2011/11/26/cfi-canada-gets-a-shake-up-comes-clean/#flmedia

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  18. This is Pat O'Brien, I am one of the "faceless" (I assure you I have a face) directors of CFI. I will only make factual comments to clear up miss- understandings. Michael Gardiner is a semi retired businessman.

    The confrontationist/accommodationist debate has nothing to do with the current situation.

    The Associate Members can only make recommendations to the board but they also have the power to decide who will or will not be on the board. All board members are by default Associate Members. There are 6 board members now and 9 non board Associate Members making a total of 15. The 9 include the three board members who recently resigned

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  19. Gosh, where to start, eh?

    The Michael Payton thing is quite weird. He was (is?) Justin's right-hand-man for the men's rights thing and has a history of dishonesty (that I honestly don't know the full story about, my fiance was heavily involved but I'd need to get him to tell a full account, as I don't feel 'qualified'). It struck me as odd that he was who the board went to... And it just seems like the door is being opened wider and wider for Justin to come back in. (Which is good? Or bad? Or both?)

    The major issue, I think, is that the board can't really come straight out and say all that is happening/has happened to the public. There are legal issues for them, aren't there? The things I've heard (from directors of the board) are pretty serious as to why Justin was first put on a leave of absence and then subsequently fired, and I'm pretty sure they are legally obligated NOT to publically state the goings-on about this. Justin has been a long time friend of mine and I think he would have done himself a favour by not rallying phone-trees and lobbying his friends to complain. There may have been a more warm-welcome back if he would have just backed off for a month. It sounded like they wanted him as a spokesperson, but needed to deal with other things first.

    I think even Justin would admit that he didn't make the best "manager" but he certainly made a stellar spokesperson and built a really incredible grassroots activist organization... Unfortunately that organization needed to get professional, and that meant getting someone who knows how to keep accurate bank records because the government doesn't care how often you're on Coren - just that you're filing your taxes properly. These sorts of nitty gritty details that Justin was not concerned with put the board in a tricky situation - they would now be liable for his inability to do the 'professional' side of the organization...

    I think any one member of the board would be willing to tell you their own personal explanation of what is going on. The board was "split" and I spoke with people on both sides and each had a very different story to tell. I don't think either story was really wrong - they just each emphasized different important pieces of the events and arguments. One side - professional. Other side - grassroots. Its difficult to decide which "side" I come down on - I don't envy anyone directly involved in this.

    It's all sorta sad, really. I loved CFI...

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  20. Also... Victoria you said:

    "If you don't like linking to Zak's post because he doesn't reveal his name, why do you allow comments from piprod01 and KGB? Isn't it time you insisted that the people on your blog use their own name, especially the ones who call themselves anonymous, or their comment will not be posted?

    Directly after Dr. Moran openly criticized KGB for hiding behind anonymity and called for him/her to say their real name. Are you honestly suggesting that he censor commentors for being anonymous simply because he said he doesn't like it when people are anonymous? Weird.

    I also think its funny that Zak calls FAC his "baby" when, for the 4 - 5 years I've been on the board he rarely actually ran for a spot on the board,was reluctant to take a position when offered and openly complained that he was doing treasurer-like work when he wasn't on the board implying I should have done it (what kind of good leader says "no no, please let me handle that task that you know how to do better"). Also, FAC gave him $3000 to update Canadian Atheist and do a Canadian Atheist Student scholarship that never happened.

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  21. If you do get to talk to them, please remind them that they are still listing the late Robert Buckman as an adviser. And it would be nice to link to a brief bio of the board members. The listed contact is still Justin Trottier. Thanks.

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