Report recommends changes to UOSU’s governance and constitution
The University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) has published on its website the executive summary of a neutral third-party report it commissioned in late November 2020 following the resignation of former operations commissioner Nour El Huda.
Retained by the union was independent investigator, the retired honourable Giovanna Toscano Roccamo, who was put in charge of investigating allegations made by the former operations commissioner against the 2020-21 Executive Committee in her letter of resignation (LOR).
According to Roccamo, these allegations included: “acts contrary to the Ontario Human Rights Code, misogyny, Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, and general poor corporate governance.”
The letter, which was sent to the Fulcrum on Nov. 23, detailed a number of alleged incidents which led to her resignation, including her allegedly being “alienated from the Executive Committee,” as well as allegations of exclusion from meetings and “concerns of misogyny and Islamophobia.”
El-Huda wrote that these allegations made her feel exhausted and had ultimately led to burnout due to “constantly being placed in the position of being unwanted.”
In order to properly investigate these allegation, Roccamo gave El Huda and all five members of the executive committee at the time of El Huda’s resignation the voluntary choice to “be interviewed as to their knowledge of the matters raised in the LOR, and to share the names and contact of secondary witnesses considered to have information or documentation of relevance.”
“The Honourable Giovanna Toscano Roccamo was authorized to make findings of fact based on the evidence received, both oral and documentary, on a balance of probabilities and in accordance with the law, and to deliver a written report at the conclusion of the investigation,” wrote the UOSU, on its website.
Over a period of about a month, from Jan. 6 to Feb. 1, 2021, Roccamo interviewed the five members of the Executive Committee and UOSU’s chair of the Board of Directors (BOD), Kimberley Paradis, as well as Manon Méthot, its executive director. El Huda did not originally respond to emails and texts, eventually declining to be interviewed, citing a desire to focus on her health and studies. In total, Roccamo conducted 11 interviews with the seven witnesses.
No evidence of wrongdoing by 2020-21 Executive Committee
In the report, Roccamo explored eight issues based on the allegations made by El Huda. These allegations included: predetermined decision making; termination of a probationary employee; exclusion from Executive Committee discussions; misogyny and Islamophobia; accusations of wrongdoing by El Huda; questioning of El Huda’s health status; anti-Black racism; corporate governance concerns.
Starting with the allegations of predetermined decision making, Roccamo concluded that there was “no evidence” that members of the Executive Committee pre-determined their positions and refused to consider “El Huda’s views and opinions.” The judge wrote that there was “robust debate” over the hiring process of the interim commissioner and the termination of an employee, but that this was done in a democratic fashion and the rest of the Executive Committee simply “happened not to agree with El Huda”.
As for the termination of probationary employees, the report cleared up this allegation from El Huda. According to the report, one unnamed employee was terminated “after a suitability review, and based on legal advice provided on employment standards and the law.”
“The evidence does not establish that clique-like decisions were made by members of the Executive Committee, to terminate employees before the end of the probationary period, contrary to the law and employment standards, as alleged by Nour El Huda in her LOR,” added Roccamo, in the report.
On allegations of exclusion from Executive Committee discussions, the report found no evidence that “members of the Executive Committee hosted meetings without notice or invitation to Nour El Huda.” Furthermore, the report found that when it came to the hiring process of interim equity commissioner Jason Seguya, there was a lack of communication by El Huda and a failure on her part to respond in a timely manner to emails from then president Babacar Faye and legal counsel.
In regards to allegations of misogyny and Islamophobia, Roccamo stated that misogyny and Islamophobia played no part in the conflicts that arose between the Executive Committee and El Huda. The report pointed out that during El Huda’s term, three Executive Committee members were women and three were Muslim.
“By all the accounts received in the course of this investigation, all members of the Executive Committee respected their diversity, despite their differing opinions,” wrote Roccamo.
Roccamo was, however, critical of what she described as an apparent unhealthy workplace culture which motivated all members of the Executive Committee to work in excess of the minimum of 37.5 hours a week. There was a decision by both Faye and student services commissioner Amina el Himri to work on a religious holiday but according to Roccamo, “El Huda was never pressured to do the same.”
Roccamo also found in the report that there was no evidence of any trend from the Executive Committee to accuse El Huda of acts or omissions. She did mention that there was “evidence of two or three short-lived conflicts” between her, Faye and el Himri, but that those did not cause lasting ill will or animosity.
“They were largely based on the difficulties associated with Nour El Huda’s lack of timely attention to her mandate, and on one occasion, the belief that she took credit for Amina el Himri’s work,” wrote Roccamo.
Issue number six concerns the allegation from El Huda that the Executive Committee made inappropriate statements or questioned the basis of her medical leave. Roccamo clearly states that not only is there no evidence of this but that there were many attempts made by el Himri, Faye as well as Francophone affairs commissioner Marissa St-Amand and Méthot to lend support. El Huda also sent emails “expressing gratitude for the kindness and support she received from a number of colleagues.”
Evidence also did not support the allegations of two instances of anti-Black racism that El Huda had raised in her LOR.
The only allegation that was substantiated was El Huda’s concerns about the UOSU’s corporate governance. It was found that all members of the Executive Committee including El Huda faced challenges. These challenges were attributed to a “lack of training and preparation for their substantial roles in the management of a nascent student government.”
“Corporate governance improvements would have relieved a number of the challenges.”
On the other hand, Roccamo found that the evidence did not establish that the other members of the Executive Committee acted as a clique or that their conduct was responsible for the deterioration of El Huda’s health and inability to finish her mandate.
Report recommends implementation of a conflict resolution system
To conclude the report, Roccamo wrote 11 recommendations to better the UOSU’s governance structure and to help assure that a similar situation does not occur in the future.
The first four recommendations circle around the creation of a mandatory dispute resolution process that works to de-escalate potential disputes between members of the Executive Committee. Roccamo asks the union to consider setting a fixed contribution for independent legal advice to the complainant as part of the process and procedure. She also recommends that the Executive Committee “consider the provision of trauma, conflict and reconciliation counselling.”
According to Roccamo, in the El Huda case, “several members interviewed expressed the wish to participate in a dialogue by which to arrive at a mutual understanding, and reconciliation.”
Roccamo also recommends that the UOSU develops more concise procedures for complaints.
In terms of avoiding clashes and division among the Executive Committee, Roccamo says that members could benefit from a retreat before the start of their term. They could also benefit from a more comprehensive transition process to provide them with the necessary training and tools to understand the UOSU constitution, policies and procedures, and coaching on conflict resolution.
“The UOSU is actively looking to create an internal system moving forward. In so doing, the UOSU must ensure that complaints are investigated in a thorough and fair manner by an impartial decision-maker,” said Armaan Kheppar, the UOSU’s advocacy commissioner.
Kheppar, who answered questions on the report on behalf of the UOSU as an organisation, also added that doing so will require “a consideration of resources, expertise, and proper process.”
Report suggests changes to UOSU’s governance and constitution
In the report, the Roccamo also took the liberty to suggest major changes to the UOSU’s governance structure and constitution.
In reference to a public incident that occurred on March 22, 2020, leading to the disqualification of two candidates running for UOSU office, Roccamo recommended reforms to the union’s electoral and media codes.
Roccamo believes that there needs to be added provisions to the UOSU’s constitution to address vacancies on the Executive Committee and reallocations of duties and responsibilities that accompany these vacancies for the rest of the Executive Committee. She also recommends that the union gives attention to workplace wellness and make sure its executives are not consistently working over the 37.5 hours and on weekends, holidays and nights.
In the last two recommendations, the judge addresses structural problems among UOSU services, recommending the centralization or creation of new services centres and a partnership with the university to create a seat of study on campus dedicated to the development of Equity Policy and Procedures.
When asked about the report’s findings and recommendations, Tim Gulliver, the UOSU’s current president and a member of the 2020-21 Executive Committee, did not address the findings, instead concentrating on the recommendations.
“I wish to thank the Honourable Giovanna Roccamo for her thorough investigation, findings and recommendations. We are taking immediate action to implement recommendations made by her Honour,” he said.
Gulliver says he will ensure that the UOSU’s actions on the recommendations will uphold the UOSU’s commitment to ensuring that everyone has a right to work in a respectful workplace.
“The UOSU must champion human rights, equality, and inclusion in both the manner in which students are treated and the manner in which we treat each other within student government.”
el Himri’s response was similar, thanking the judge and stating that “the UOSU will act immediately to implement the recommendations made by the Honourable Giovanna Roccamo.”
Kheppar reiterated what Gulliver and el Himri said about implementing the recommendations, but went into further details about actions the UOSU has started to undertake to do so.
“We are in the process of prioritizing the recommendations and actioning them in accordance with (1) the process set out in the Constitution of the UOSU and (2) the legalities involved in implementing certain recommendations,” said Kheppar.
UOSU answers questions on price and reason for report’s partial release
Although the union did release the report’s executive summary, it voted against releasing the full report at an in-camera BOD meeting on April 29, according to an anonymous UOSU source.
“[The 2020-21 BOD] had a serious talk with the [UOSU’s] lawyer, in the in-camera session obviously, the lawyer suggested to not disclose the full report because there are a lot of names and you don’t want to ruin the rest of someone’s life because of this report,” said the source.
The source has asked for anonymity for fear of legal reprisal from the union.
The source’s report was confirmed by Kheppar.
“In publishing the executive summary, the UOSU is seeking to balance its commitments to transparency, a respectful work environment, and the protection of our employees’ individual privacy interests.”
“The UOSU must ensure that members and employees feel comfortable coming forward with a complaint and participating candidly as a witness in any investigation. Releasing the entirety of the report, which necessarily contains interviews and personal information, would have a chilling effect on employee and members’ willingness to come forward and/or participate in these important processes,” Kheppar told the Fulcrum.
The price tag of the report had also originally been kept in-camera, according to the source, but was disclosed to the Fulcrum by Kheppar. He said the report cost the union $62,564.42, plus HST. However, despite the high price, Kheppar said Roccamo conducted an extremely detailed investigation and that her governance recommendations were detailed and will be extremely helpful for the union.
“The Honourable Giovanna Toscano Roccamo conducted an extremely detailed investigation. She was authorized to make findings of fact based on the evidence received, both oral and documentary, and in accordance with the law. In the course of her investigation, she reviewed all of the 79 policy documents of the UOSU, emails and conducted numerous hours of interviews with each of the information custodians.”
“The Honourable Giovanna Roccamo delivered an exhaustive Investigative report at the conclusion of the investigation … Her governance recommendations were detailed and extremely helpful as they will guide us in effecting future change,” said Kheppar.