True North, formerly known as the Wheatland Crisis Society, is facing scrutiny from current and former employees for failures by the operating management team and board of directors to create a hospitable workplace environment. 

Additionally, accusations exist suggesting the shelter is allegedly not adhering to mandated protocols designed to create a secure and nurturing environment for individuals fleeing domestic violence. 

For reference, individuals who spoke on the condition of anonymity, due to risk of reprisal and employment termination, are current or former employees of True North. 

Though all of the unnamed sources currently or formerly share employment history at True North, their positions and titles were also requested to be redacted, out of further concerns for being a means to identify them.

“The leadership has definitely (had) a big impact with staff; very toxic with mistreatment, bullying, and favouritism … and then there has been a lot of changes in the recent months with wanting to change our mandates,” said Source A. “There have been countless times that staff have brought up incidents that have happened within the shelter (where abuse has been directed) towards staff, and leadership will either ignore it, or have you go through the investigation process and will follow through.”

One source indicated instances of clients aggressively gesturing for staff to approach them, as well as verbal abuse towards staff being overlooked or ignored by those in management positions. 

Since 2021, it was reported that 37 staff have resigned from their positions due to grievances with management, as well as seven staff who have elected to go on stress leave from their positions due to ongoing inhospitable working conditions.

Due to significantly above average staff turnover, one source described service to clients and residents of the shelter to be suffering to an extent noticeable by those seeking and receiving haven in the shelter.

“It is under horrific management. It is affecting the way that we work; it is affecting the work that we do with our clients; there is no support; nobody knows what they are doing; they are hiring people just so they can stop a union but nobody is qualified to do the jobs; they are undertraining, (and) underpaying,” said Source B. “Client work does not get done as successfully as we hope it would be getting done because we are burnt out from the work; we are also burnt out because we are not getting support from management to do the job, and so it has definitely impacted clients on that level of not being able to give 100 per cent.”

Echoing a similar sentiment, one source said they had concerns that recently hired staff do not have the proper education, background, or training necessary for the job.

“We had staff who had been there, seasoned for many, many years, and those are the people who are being driven out, and I have seen them hire and bring in people who maybe do not have human services education and no experience in those positions, and there is no senior staff there to mentor and train them,” said Source E. “(There is) a real lack of understanding of the complexities of domestic violence, and also the ethics within the human services field.”

A source said on several occasions, letters have been sent to True North’s board of directors, contact has been sought with the Alberta Council of Social Workers, and staff have requested the intervention of a union body in order to receive support for their grievances. 

Additionally, they described feelings of “walking on eggshells,” and fear to go in to work over consistent risk of being fired, receiving unjust disciplinary measures, and a lack of consideration for staff concerns.

“You never knew if were going to get in trouble, get fired… (you were) never allowed to speak your mind or advocate for yourself; there were consequences for those actions,” said Source D.

Linda McLean, executive director of True North, said the organization has a “very comprehensive” set of human resources policies which includes a grievance procedure. She did not volunteer any more information regarding what that procedure looks like or entails. 

McLean added any and all internal human resources issues remain confidential in order to protect the privacy of staff. No further information was provided. 

“I did not even know there was a support structure… I have known (multiple) people who have gone on stress leave because of leadership’s poor management. There is no support in place,” said Source B. “If you want to debrief, you can talk to them about how (something) made you feel, but there is nothing after that. There is no help.”

Regarding staff seeking aid from a union to intervene, the process of unionization was reported to have started in 2023, prior to McLean taking over as the current executive director. 

One source clarified that staff are not completely unionized at this point, due to several members who are union representatives going on stress leave due to treatment from management. 

The ongoing goal, they explained, is to see the process of unionization completed within the next six months. The body overseeing the union is Local 4731, based out of Calgary.

McLean confirmed union involvement occurring with True North beginning prior to her assuming her current position, while Carol Manson McLeod still held the title.

An additional concern expressed by a source is with respect to overnight staffing of the emergency shelter, and the operation of the 24-hour crisis line. 

The source explained there is intent to change from having regular relief staff manning the shelter overnight to bringing on an overnight security guard instead. 

“This is very concerning, as many of our clients come to us with very negative experiences with authority, and particularly men in authority figures. I feel like the clients will not be receiving the proper amount of care and consideration that they deserve,” said Source C. “I do not believe that is very trauma informed to be having male security guards there in uniform, and I worry about fears from our clients.”

Further distress indicated by the source regarding the idea of a security guard in uniform on watch at the shelter overnight would be a lack of crisis intervention and supportive counseling training to speak with and support clients overnight should they need service and be unable to sleep.

According to the sources, the 24-hour crisis line will only offer direct support from True North between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.

Beyond those times, one source reported instead of having a crisis worker to speak to with True North, calls will be redirected to other distress lines and agencies such as in Calgary or other municipalities.

Additionally, instead of clients being talked through admissions overnight, people fleeing their partners and abusive situations may be put up in hotel rooms, with full assessments delayed until the morning after. 

“The next morning, the staff will have to assess the client situation and see if they are a fit for the shelter,” said Source C. “There is a potential that we put a client or a family up in a hotel room and then decide the next day that we are not going to accept them to the shelter … that is not very trauma informed because we are getting people’s hopes up without being able to fully guarantee that we can offer them safety in our shelter.”

McLean confirmed the 24-hour crisis line will continue to exist and remain operational at all hours. She also denied that neither she, the board of directors, nor any management staff have had conversations regarding the crisis line. No further information was volunteered. 

The sources are calling for significant changes to be seen on the True North board of directors, as well as with the management team.

“I do not think that anybody can comfortably work under people who clearly do not want what is best for their staff, or for their clients,” said Source B. “They just wanted to run it like a business instead of the person-centric organization that it is. They acted like we had a say in the new name and the new branding but they did not really care about our opinion in that, and they try so hard to make us look like a business instead of a not-for-profit for people fleeing domestic violence.”

By John Watson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 13, 2024 at 20:08

This item reprinted with permission from   Strathmore Times   Strathmore, Alberta

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