The lobby of the Bay street building where the African Canadian Legal Clinic keeps third-floor offices was a scene of angry despair last Monday, October 20 as a police officer and several security guards protected an annual general meeting from clinic members. Famed lawyer Charles Roach, a full member of the clinic, and a number of other notables milled around, unable to penetrate the cordon. "This is disgraceful," offered one man who refused to give his name. "We, the community who own this clinic, are being locked out. What will happen next?"
Usually, these sorts of meetings are prosaic affairs dominated by the yeas and nays of endorsement or opposition to motions that require little debate. But with the leak of a thick audit conducted by the clinic's funder, Legal Aid Ontario, over the last week, all hell has broken loose. The document was sent to media, including to this reporter, by a clinic employee upset by the audit's contents.
The audit, released in April, raised questions about the possible misuse of funds and inflation of client numbers, and pointed to the existence of "weak internal controls with respect to the payment of expenditures.' Documents suggest that some $418,000 was received from various funders but not reported to Legal Aid Ontario, which backs the group to the tune of approximately $628,000 yearly.
The audit also questioned a $10,000 overtime payment to administrator Margaret Parsons and suggested that 18 per cent of referral records were duplicates.
It's always been the tradition that community members in general were welcome at these meetings. I've gone to several myself, sometimes to report, sometimes just out of interest. But when I showed up in late September for the first attempt at this year's annual general meeting, I knew something different was afoot.
"Why are you here?" Parsons asked me in the course of vetting everyone who came through the door. I was startled. There were 60 or so others in the room, among them prominent leaders of the black community, including Zanana Akande, Arnold Minors and Charles Roach. The meeting quickly ran into trouble. Few in the room on this particular evening were in the mood for business as usual, because of rumours about the ominous audit.
The first shot came from Akua Benjamin, director of social work at Ryerson University. "The people running the clinic have not been honest with the community. They have not been transparent," said Benjamin. "There will be no more cover-ups today."
Another woman who refused to give her name said, "The problem is management, and we know it. Let's put the blame where it belongs. Let's name names."
But they got no sympathy from Eyitayo Dada, chair of the meeting, who appeared fixated on focusing the meeting on other things. Dada was replacing the former chair of the board of directors, who left the organization in early September. After two hours of wrangling, arguing and pontificating, the meeting broke down.
"Before the African Canadian Legal Clinic, there was the black community, and I am a concerned member of the black community who is entitled to know what's going at this clinic," Akande said furiously, her words bringing the meeting to a screeching halt. "You insult the community by coming here obviously ill prepared."
The dysfunction within the community group, which is one of the most influential black organizations in Ontario, seems to be deepening. For example, there's the case of a clinic researcher who's suing for hundreds of thousands of dollars. According to court documents filed at the Superior Court of Justice, the woman alleges she was fired amid a flurry of actions that resemble a tenant's eviction by a cruel landlord.
And then there are the old controversies from the 1990s that refuse to die. The fallout from the notorious Johnny Cochran event of 1995 still hangs over the clinic like a cloud. Cochran came to Toronto in December of that year at the clinic's invitation to give a speech at the Metro Convention Centre. Apparently, the clinic administration had no money to pay him and avoided a major embarrassment by borrowing thousands of dollars from a number of the community leaders who helped found the clinic. Almost nine years later, those loans remain unpaid and a source of bitter recrimination.
Amid all this strife, clinic membership has steadily dropped. In the 1990s there were well over 100 members. Today, the clinic relies on only 20. What's even more baffling is the curious attitude of the black media, which has avoided reporting on the meltdown. The black community sometimes keeps its silence in such situations for fear of encouraging the right-wing media to beat up on its organizations.
Still, if the Afro-Canadian press doesn't ask hard questions, it will end up undermining the search for solutions. It's a tough call.