There must be something with activist freethinkers where we just love scandal and controversy. Everything from crackers and gelato to elevators and coup d’etats wins over praise and scorn from across the blogosphere. Perhaps its just the nature of blogs or just people, but there’s nothing entirely rational about our need to gossip over every issue. We also love sticking –gate on everything, which is an entirely different rant.
This isn’t to say that every issue is pedantic and unworthy of discussion. Some controversy brings out deeper issues, whether it’s anti-atheist bigotry (and how we deal with it) or our own in-group diversity issues.
I’ve been trying to keep myself from stirring more controversy with CFI Canada over the past year or more, but now it’s just too much and I need to internet rage, so please indulge me (or don’t, there’s many other wonderful sites on the web).
If you’re reading this article you’ve probably already seen Zak’s post on this site and maybe even clicked through to an article by The Good Atheist (TGA) on some controversy that’s been brewing in the leadership and board of directors of CFI Canada. The Good Atheist also has a podcast (mp3) on the issue, and you can hear the discussion of CFI Canada from the 10 minute mark (the CFI discussion is about 14 minutes long).
While almost everyone active in the Canadian secular movement has their own bias and perspective, reading the articles and listening to the podcast I found so many wrong or half-true stories that I hardly know where to begin. I don’t want to pretend to be impartial on this issue, nor do I claim to be an authority. I know many of the people involved though and believe I have a good grasp on the issues. If you find factual errors in this piece, please believe that my intent isn’t to defame or slander, but to try to get us closer to the truth. My own personal frustrations with CFI Canada date back to at least 2009, which is where I’ll begin.
My involvement in organized atheism dates back to summer 2007 when I got involved in an atheist meetup in Edmonton. From there I started a campus group at the University of Alberta with a few other students. I met Justin Trottier when he was still head of the Freethought Association of Canada, but also starting up (or had recently started) CFI Ontario. I attended a CFI On Campus conference in 2008 in Amherst, and first saw CFI Ontario’s building then. I’m probably missing a bunch, but this is the potentially relevant history for me.
In September 2009, I had just moved to Vancouver and CFI Canada was pushing hard to open new communities across Canada under Justin Trottier’s leadership as National Director. It was already becoming clear though that many volunteers across the country were frustrated with his leadership style and were especially uncomfortable with his increasingly vocal men’s rights activism (MRA).
Justin was running a blog called Equalism Activism, on which he mixed his work for CFI Canada with his sometimes anti-feminist statements. I wrote a criticism of CFI Canada and Justin (who I jokingly called the Archbishop of Atheism in Canada) at the time and referenced a few of his controversial statements, including a public complaint that a female vice-president was interviewed instead of a male spokesperson.
My key points were that CFI Canada had an issue of professionalism in its leadership and that the entire structure lacked transparency and accountability. I openly acknowledged at the time that as a corporate-structured non-profit charity that they were under no obligation to provide this, but failing to do so was likely to turn off donors and volunteers in the future. My personal preference would have been for a membership-elected board that would have oversight over the national director, providing accountability to all stakeholders.
I should note right here, the first common misconception is that CFI Canada has members. It does not. When you “join” CFI Canada you become a Friend of the Centre (FOTC), which is a fancy way of saying you get discounted access to events. The key difference between members and FOTCs is that the former get some say in the management of an organization, while the latter are customers.
Volunteers, myself included, often feel that CFI should owe them something for the time and money they put into the organization. There’s an expectation for transparency, accountability, and maybe even democracy. Unfortunately, these things do not, and likely will never, exist in CFI as it stands today.
Sure, it’s in their interest to listen if a large number of volunteers and donors stop contributing, but there’s still no obligation here. If you don’t like this situation, I strongly encourage you to find and improve a more open and democratic organization.
Some of the concerns I raised were addressed. Justin removed some of his controversial material and his MRA work was kept much quieter; however, no effort was made to improve the transparency of the organization.
In 2010, I began distancing myself from CFI Canada and got involved in the BC Humanists and the Freethought Association of Canada (FAC). FAC remained little more than a shell, as it was primarily created to grant tax receipts and run the Canadian Atheist Bus Campaign until CFI Canada was granted charitable status. As a board (CA co-founder Zak was also on the board), we were in the process of shutting it down as it had little mandate and few volunteers, but that process somewhat stalled and I actually have no clue what the status of FAC is now nor what has happened to any of the resources it had (a bit of money).
CFI Vancouver hired an executive director in early 2010, but through the year local volunteers grew increasingly dissatisfied with the lack of professionalism and communication. Our complaints seemed to fall on deaf ears at CFI Canada, until his contract was not renewed in early 2011 when a new director was hired. By this point I had cut most of my involvement with CFI, but have since supported the local book club and attended a few events.
This isn’t intended to be an exhaustive history, but gives some of the context for where my views are coming from. Obviously I’m not an impartial journalist here and have my baggage, but like most activists, I want to see a successful movement and would rather things move smoothly than let personal differences impede our progress.
Justin Trottier’s Dismissal
At some point though, some issues become more than mere personal grudges. When they boil to the surface, these issues can cripple an organization. It seems like this is the point that CFI Canada is reaching, and it’s what’s pushed me to the point of wanting to vent. With all the personal biases, many half-truths are also flying around and it makes me want to internet rage.
So what has been going on (in my view)?
The Centre (and Center) for Inquiry has always tried to be a big tent organization. Paul Kurtz’s original goal for it seems to have been to bring together his successful skeptics organization CSICOP (now CSI) and his moderately successful Council for Secular Humanism under one rational umbrella. The Canadian version mimicked this goal of trying to be a bit of everything to everyone. Secular activism against Catholic schools would coexist with campaigns against homeopathy and a desire to build local communities and support campus groups. When people asked what is the Centre for Inquiry, everyone would have a slightly different answer, based on what they perceived it to be. Obviously there was the mission statement, but this still left much to the imagination. This isn’t an altogether bad thing, but it makes an organization less focussed and means a lot of different priorities must be balanced. A big skeptical project would potentially mean the loss of energy for humanist community building.
I think the board of CFI Canada had this concern in mind when they and Justin Trottier received a donation earlier this year to consult a branding firm. And here is one of the many half-truths in TGA’s article. He lament’s their spending money on branding and suggests it has been a waste since Justin’s departure:
In the interim of Justin departure, the organization had managed to spend over $20,000 attempting to revamp their mission statement. It was a move the Board felt would help attract important and new members with deep pockets.
It’s just two sentences, but the level of wrongness is mind-blowing. First, the timeline’s overlap; so Justin was involved in the early planning of the branding. He may not have been entirely on board, since some of the ideas that came out might have challenged his vision, but the point is that he was there. Second, when a donor gives a charity $20,000 to revamp a mission statement, you revamp your fucking mission statement. It’s basically free money and the board isn’t stupid. Next, the mission statement was but one part of the branding campaign. The goal was (is still?) to go over the entire organization from top to bottom, leaving nothing sacred. In skepticism we should appreciate this level of scrutiny and actually like the idea of applying the scientific method to our own organizational methodologies. Finally, the goal of any activist organization should be to get more people to hear its message, which requires more money. TGA seems to think this is something worth mocking, and I just don’t get it.
Now, I’ll readily admit that corporate branding lives in a pseudo-scientific realm. I’m reading a book right now on evidenced-based management that could have been written by Carl Sagan. It discusses the many soothsayers of the business world, but recognizes that there are ways to improve the management of an organization by applying the methodologies of science-based medicine. It’s not clear to me whether the consultants chosen employed some evidentiary backing to their techniques, but I’m willing to give CFI the benefit of the doubt here unless people can demonstrate otherwise.
So with the branding campaign getting started and the large fundraising campaign that Zak alluded to wrapping up, Justin off and leaves to run for the Green Party. Now, unlike some I’m not going to criticize Justin for this and think it is commendable to see him standing for public office. He likely knew he was going to lose, but he wanted to give voice to the Party’s opposition to Catholic School funding in Ontario – the only party that openly opposed it. We need more atheists running for office, and it’s good for him to try. It is worth noting that Zak was Justin’s policy advisor for the campaign (again, none of us are impartial).
The timing sucked though. Right when CFI Canada needed a final push to actually achieve their fundraising goal, Justin left the organization faceless and leaderless. Luckily, the board was able to convince Derek Pert to step in as interim leader to continue the work.
I can’t know exactly what happened next, but from what I’ve heard, Derek inherited a mess from Justin who had prepared little to handle his absence. As any campus group quickly learns, without planning for transitions, you’re group will be doomed to fail. The board also started to learn what position the organization was actually in and they saw Derek presenting a more competent, professional, and less divisive face. Realizing that Justin was not vital to the success of CFI Canada, they discussed their options and terminated Justin’s contract. TGA speculates on the legality of this termination and even cites anonymous sources on the board that reportedly voted unanimously to remove Justin.
Without knowing the details of his contract, we can make any guess we want. Although, I know many volunteers who breathed a sigh of relief at the change of guards and began to hope for a less controversial future. Sadly, this hasn’t been the case.
Everything gets even less clear from here, so when people like TGA, ZAK, or even myself try to tell the story, it’s going to be incomplete, and as good skeptics I encourage you not to trust any of us completely. This isn’t necessarily a case where the truth lies in the exact middle of everyone’s opinion (since some people potentially have ulterior motives), but there are few facts and secrecy rules.
From my vantage point, the brand process has been fumbled through. Doing the entire thing behind closed doors may make it easier to push through, but with little leaks here and there about possible changes in focus or programming, volunteers get antsy. I can understand the trepidation about opening the inner-workings of an organization up to public scrutiny, but that’s maybe a necessary risk. Bad ideas die in competition. Meanwhile, this whole Reasonable Women debacle goes down (which in my view is an unfortunately timed coincidence) and supporters are left wondering what’s going on. Comments from the board have been lacking and cryptic, and it’s been several months since the start of this consultation. While the process shouldn’t be rushed, things need to start happening to combat the uncertainty.
TGA is right to point out that there’s been little noticeable change from the process, but he again makes the mistake in thinking that decisions have been implemented. From what I’ve seen and heard, the discussions are still being finalized and no final implementation strategy has been adopted. They want to get this right and move on as a professional organization. You can’t blame them for taking their time.
But what’s going on below the surface is even more fishy (as TGA would say). TGA makes the claim that, when Derek was appointed to fill for Justin, Justin would be returning in a different, more activist role, while Derek would essentially manage volunteers. While I could just discard this claim since it, like most of TGA’s article, is presented without evidence, like most of TGA’s assertions there’s a nugget of truth in there. What I took from the announcement of Derek’s appointment was that he was acting as a temporary national director and that Justin would return as National Director after the campaign had finished. This story likely shifted as board members saw an opportunity to give Derek control, while some hoped Justin could be given an autonomous role as an activist. Someone must have watched The Office reruns when Michael and Jim were co-managers and realized how stupid an idea that was and suggested letting Justin go.
I would almost accuse TGA of looking for a witch hunt, except he goes as far as even claiming one happened! What strikes me though is in that TGA bases most of his claims on anonymous emails and conversations he’s had with board members, but then says this:
The repercussions of this witch-hunt can still be felt; even as I write this, various members continue to email one another with poisonous accusations against Justin of corrupting or poisoning members, the childishness of which cannot be overstated.
So those anonymous emails can be discounted but TGA’s are legit? I guess he just has different standards of evidence. It’s quite rich for TGA to claim that those allegations are quite “childish” while he asserts many more things based on half-truths. These claims are no more childish than TGA’s many half-truths and idle speculation on the legality of Justin’s termination.
One of CFI Canada’s biggest donors has been Justin’s own uncle and CFI Canada board member Lorne Trottier. I have little doubt that Lorne is one of the major donors to drop out, likely because of pressure from Justin. I’ve also heard from several people that Justin has been putting pressure on other donors to stop supporting CFI, as a twisted attempt to snake his way back into the organization. TGA can call it a childish accusation, but (ad hominem aside) if true then the fall of CFI Canada falls squarely on the back of its own founder.
TGA goes on to claim that a sitting board member sees wild impropriety in Justin’s dismissal. For a pretty serious accusation – he’s saying that someone broke the law – TGA fails to provide the name of the board member nor any actual evidence. Instead he calls for all emails to be made public, almost ironically in some kind of witch hunt of his own.
A few more details to clear up. TGA claims in his podcast that CFI Canada has no due process for choosing its board members and that they’re vulnerable to being taken over by wealthy and vindictive Christians. Never mind the fact that this argument is entirely bullshit as this has never happened to a single atheist campus group (to my knowledge). Being a charity board member is a relatively thankless job, especially when your charity is involved with the continued controversy that CFI Canada has had. While they are free to adopt an alternate method of choosing board members, there is no evidence of any issue with the present system.
Another claim that needs to be dismissed is that any of this action has put funding from CFI Transnational in jeopardy. A few years ago, I recall conversations where there was recognition on both sides of the border that CFI Transnational could not continue to fund CFI Canada indefinitely. The decision was made that over the span of the following three years (perhaps a couple more or less) CFI Transnational would wean CFI Canada off of its funding and that we would need to raise our own money domestically. This financial support was justification for Ron Lindsay and a couple other Americans for remaining on the board of CFI Canada. It’s possible that this agreement changed if CFI Canada failed to meet its goals, but until told otherwise, this funding shift was independent of this story.
This whole situation is a dirty mess and is embarrassing to skeptics and humanists across Canada.
I’m especially ashamed by The Good Atheist’s failure to even try to demonstrate some semblance of critical thinking. His article has just enough truth to be dangerous as it mixes in wild speculation and baseless accusations.
I want to see secular advocacy and community groups succeed in Canada. Centre For Inquiry, despite its structural flaws, has done an impressive job in its few short years of existence, and much of that is thanks to Justin Trottier. However, there are no saints in our movement, and everyone is fallible. For all his strengths as an activist and spokesperson, Justin was divisive and a poor leader. The board at CFI Canada saw an opportunity to increase the professionalism and success of its organization by replacing him. Unfortunately, egos seem to have gotten in the way which are now bending CFI Canada to the point of breaking.
Finally, the last tip that I’ve heard is that we can expect to hear a number of high-profile resignations over Justin’s backroom dealing. It’s not clear exactly who might leave, but CFI Canada is going to look a lot different in a few weeks, and it’s really unclear where it will be in 2012.
This saga is sadly far from over, but organized atheism, skepticism, and humanism will no doubt continue.
CFI Canada’s board has issued a formal response to some of the issues: CFI-board-letter [pdf].
They mention that National Director Derek Pert and three board members have resigned and that a special meeting is scheduled for December 11th. Michael Payton has taken over in the interim as National Director, and I don’t envy him.