Radio Freethinker

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The CFI Canada Conundrum

Posted by Ethan Clow on December 2, 2011

Subtitle: Because this hasn’t been discussed enough.

Sub-Subtitle: I was being sarcastic.

If you somehow hadn’t heard, CFI Canada is going through a bit of rough patch. Rather than summarize it again, since we did that a bit on Radio Freethinker episode 143 I thought it would be more valuable to discuss some the implications and possibilities that arise out of CFI Canada’s recent adventures. Of course, I’ll still provide enough of the narrative to give context to anyone who hasn’t already heard the story.

CFI Canada, aka the Centre for Inquiry is an educational charity here in Canada with a mandate to promote skepticism and critical thinking and secular values. We’ve talked about CFI many times on our show, often positively with regard to events, activism and skeptical outreach.

Careful! Don't break it!

However as I mentioned, things haven’t be going well for the organization. Locally in Vancouver there was the unfortunate split between CFI Vancouver and the Reasonable Women group which really made a dent in the solidarity of the local community of freethinkers. To read more about this issue see my previous post CFI says no to “Reasonable Women” you can also see a write up of the split by Natalie Reed on Skepchick here.

Mostly unrelated to the local controversy, serious problems were happening at the top of CFI’s organization structure, and these problems were mostly happening in secret from many volunteers and members of the organization. You can read all about this here, here, and here. Oh and here and here.

Many listeners may have already been following this story, lots of blog posts have been written about this, as well as a fair share of speculation, guesses, rumours and mud-slinging. In order to get the most accurate picture I could, I tried to rely on what I’ve been told by board members and volunteers directly involved and looking at official CFI correspondence that comes my as an advisor and associate member. I can’t guarantee that this chain of events is 100% accurate or that small details are left out, but I think what I’m reporting is reasonably accurate. Let me just write that again in bigger letters…I CAN’T GUARANTEE THAT THIS NARRATIVE OF PAST EVENTS IS 100% ACCURATE.

As I was told by a board member, unless someone has been present for the past few months meticulously taking notes, any account of what happened is bound to have a few mistakes in it.

The problems seemed to begin back in late summer when it was revealed that the national executive director of CFI, Justin Trottier had left the organization. The details of Trottier’s departure weren’t made public but many, myself included, thought that Justin had decided to move on, perhaps pursuing a career in politics. Leadership of CFI passed to Derek Pert, formally the executive director of CFI Ontario.

It soon became apparent however that Justin didn’t leave of his own accord, he was fired by the board of directors. The exact reason is unclear. It also appeared that the decision to fire Justin wasn’t universally agreed to by the board of directors. In fact, it may have been done in a way the violated the by laws of the organization.

This disagreement by the board, as well as a controversial plan to review and potentially change the direction and mission statement of CFI Canada created a strong rift in the board of directors resulting in the inability to pass new measures or debate issues.

Again, all this conflict was happening in secret and the average volunteer and member had no idea. This was compounded when notices were sent out to the public from various board members, seemingly, without approval of the rest of the board and potentially containing misleading statements.

Why was Justin fired? Was it a good reason? Was he a good leader? These are all questions that are being asked by people. To say that Justin was at times controversial is an understatement. Justin was an advocate for men’s rights and was known for a deeply driven personality that some people found difficult to work with. Out of respect for Justin, I don’t think he would disagree with this sentiment, in fact he would probably be the first to acknowledge that he could sometimes rub people the wrong way.

But it’s also fair to point out the solid effort Justin put in to building CFI Canada and the free thought movement in Canada. He was an accomplished activist and made hundreds of media appearances and put in significant work to building CFI. I would like to think that if CFI Canada relieved him of his duties it was done in a by-the-books method and for good reasons.

There has been a lot of debate about Justin and his methods, which is a valid debate to have when discussing what kind of leader he was and such.  When it comes to his removal from CFI, I think the issue should be whether Justin was removed in a legal way. Whether or not we agree with his politics or opinions, was Justin fired in a way that broke the rules?

This is where things get tricky. As far as I know, there has been no official documentation made that indicates Justin was fired illegally. But it appears that a few board members that I’ve corresponded with seem to think that, at least, procedure wasn’t properly followed.

As this disagreement and debate continued the problems of CFI started to get public attention. Concern on the parts of members over the lack of progress on the Extraordinary claims campaign, CFI’s recent failure to meet a fundraising goal (the first time in CFI Canada’s history) which would have allowed CFI to get physical offices/meeting space in Vancouver, Calgary or Montreal, and the controversial new mission statement that seemed to be implying a stop to activism and secular advocacy.

Recently a letter was published by the board of directors announcing among other things:

“On November 21, Derek Pert wrote to the board requesting that he be terminated with severance. Derek indicated that he thought he lacked sufficient support from the board to carry out his duties. The board held an emergency meeting on the evening of Wednesday, November 23.”


“There followed a motion to terminate Derek Pert with severance of $50,000. The motion was made by Michael Gardiner. The motion was properly seconded and a vote was taken. The motion failed 6-3, with Michael Gardiner, Ian McCuaig, and board chair Carol Parlow voting for the motion.”


“Late on the night of November 23, Derek Pert submitted a letter of resignation. On November 24, in quick succession, directors Michael Gardiner and Ian McCuaig and board chair Carol Parlow submitted their letters of resignation.”

Long time volunteer, Michael Payton has been appointed interim National Executive Director.

The board has pledged more accountability and transparently going forward. However in rapid succession more resignations have been made. The CFI Vancouver executive director has resigned as well as co-chair of CASS (the Comittee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism) Michael Kruse, and in addition a number of volunteers have already left.

So, CFI needs to replace several key positions, including staff, board members and key volunteers. There are the additional questions/accusations that the board (or certain) members have acted inappropriately. This would include the suggest that Justin was fired illegally but also the accusation that there was a conflict of interest since one of the board members is Lorne Trottier, Justin’s uncle and that he used his position as a donor to leverage support for Justin.

If that’s true, that’s a pretty big problem. If Lorne Trottier, who is the man behind the Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium Series at McGill University and significant donor for CFI Canada, is using his support as leverage to get Justin special treatment, that’s nepotism.

Now like the issue with Justin being fired illegally, the evidence for this is (at least currently) mostly in the rumours and mud-slinging category. Given that last few weeks of events it’s understandable that a number of board members are angry and pointing fingers at each other. With that sort of heated environment, it’s difficult to get a clear idea what is truth and what isn’t.

So that’s an abbreviated narrative to the situation.

What’s to be done about it? CFI Canada is hosting a special meeting with the associate members to discuss recent events and help decide on a future course. Most likely the issues around Justin Trottier’s dismissal will be discussed, as well as the new direction CFI is taking as well as ways to make the organization more accountable and transparent.

On the show we discussed a few ways that this could happen.

Could CFI’s problems be solved by switching to a democratic system where members voted for board directors?

Personally, I think it’s about time CFI went democratic. This constant shroud of secrecy is absurd. Friends of the Centre or members or donors or whatever you want to call them, these are the people paying the bills and providing this organization with the ability to do activism and advocacy. They deserve to have their opinions and voices heard.

So many times I’ve heard the arrogant claim from CFI that “oh it’s so hard to reach a consensus with just nine board members, imagine if we had to do that with all our supporters” Well you know what? Tough it out. People give you money, you listen to them.

This situation is worse for CFI volunteers. They give up hours and hours of work and their personal lives to help out this organization because they care passionately about its goals. They are consistently left in the dark with only the promise of “soon all will be revealed” to keep them warm.

This attitude simply has to stop.

Some form of accountability needs to be created so that members and volunteers have some input into the organization that they support. One option would be to have the board members elected by the general members. The national executive council, made up of the branch leaders and volunteers, could nominate say, eighteen potential board members, the membership could vote on them and nine could be elected.

Of course this would require the remaining board members to resign. That could have some negative consequences. Perhaps creating a temporary situation where a few board members stay on to help guide the new ones before their position go up for election.

Another meme going around during this kerfuffle is whether this a isolated problem or a systemic problem among skeptical organizations?  I’ve heard the stories about us being cats and all. To be blunt, I don’t buy that. The notion that skeptics are anti-social and difficult to work with is blasted away by the number of successful Skepticamps, skeptics in the pub and other skeptical meetups that don’t devolve into fisticuffs.

On the flip side, this notion that we skeptics are supposed to be these paragons of rationality and reason is so missing the point of skepticism that I sometimes wonder if the people saying this have been paying attention. If skepticism teaches us anything, it’s that people cannot be paragons of rationality. Everything about us is hardwired to believe in pseudoscience, be fooled by what we see, and perceive patterns where there isn’t.  And of course, that means we have all the psychological blind spots that make us behave like jerks, just like the rest of the human race.

What direction should CFI Canada go in? This appears to be the million dollar question. I can’t say for sure what direction CFI Canada ought to go, only the direction I want CFI Canada to go. And what I want may not be what you want. Or it might be what you want but not what that guy wants. The point is, whatever direction CFI goes, someone, somewhere, will be upset. If only there was a way for people to feel like they got to air their concerns and offer their suggestions? Oh wait, of course not. This is CFI after all.

But wait! I got it! How about CFI Canada’s new direction goes something like this: Transparency! And…and…um how about inclusive? That way, and hear me out, people get to see the decision process being made and they can add their two cents and feel included in that decision process…since after all, they did help contribute to the organization by donating money or volunteering their time.

I think now would be a good time to wrap up this two thousand plus blog post.

Just for the record, I do want to say, I really hope CFI Canada pulls itself together and gets back to doing awesome stuff. There are a lot of great volunteers, hard working individuals who I respect and admire greatly and I have lots of confidence that they can put this crap behind them and get back on course.



One Response to “The CFI Canada Conundrum”

  1. Yeah, totally agree with you on the need to open it up to democracy. I think before they do that, they need a clear mandate and constitution from which to draw from. It would be a good idea to try and draw on the experience of others for this kind of monumental task, however.

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