Dalhousie Student Union terminates three staff members amidst prospective CFS membership

Conflicts of interest between the Dalhousie Student Union and the Canadian Federation of Students may have led to terminations of three full-time employees and a vote to unionize

Allie Jehle
Jun 23 · 8 min read

Staff and students are fearful for their jobs and the future of the Dalhousie Student Union after three “unjust” terminations, two of which occurred just one day after the full-time staff announced their plan to unionize.

Jo Castillo, the Communications and Outreach Coordinator for the Union, was terminated on June 14, just six weeks after she was hired. Craig Kennedy, the former General Manager who worked for the DSU for 20 years, was handed papers on June 20 informing him that he would be out of a job. Greg Wright, the Director of Licensed Operations and the Grawood and T-Room Manager who worked in the DSU for 15 years, was also dismissed that morning, just before the campus bar’s closure.

“[The corporate residency MBA program] was supposed to have an orientation night in the Grawood Friday night and because of all this, they just shut it all down. This is profit that’s being taken away from the union,” said Breton Doucet, the former Member Services Coordinator. “This could have been completely avoided if they had done it in a way that wasn’t completely abrupt and like dropping a bomb.”

While the overall reasoning for these terminations is unclear, as of Sunday morning, the Dalhousie Student Union had not released an official statement. According to the DSU Communications Policy, Section 1.8 states that “Feedback provided to the DSU via Official DSU Channels, excluding individual e-mail accounts, is to be acknowledged within 72 hours after said feedback is provided.” Many comments and questions surrounding this issue have gone unaddressed.

The Grawood published a statement on Facebook on June 20 that it would be closed until further notice, due to the DSU’s decision to “do some employment restructuring.”

A public comment from Kyle Mackenzie on the Grawood’s Facebook page reads, “The DSU Council did the firing, no reasoning as to why they fired the manager. The DSU stopped streaming their council meetings a couple months back. The minutes from the meeting are supposed to be available here http://dsu.ca/council but for some reason they are missing from the last meeting.”

The minutes from the May 22 meeting have since been published, but those from the June 19 meeting have not.

I reached out to Abawajy via email requesting an interview but received no response.

Students say they are concerned about the terminations. “I worked under Craig for two years; he was my direct supervisor, and I cannot tell you a single mistake that he made … He was honestly the best boss I’ve had in my entire life. He treats his staff like real people instead of like staff,” Doucet said.

“Honestly I’ve been wracking my brain for the past three days trying to think of a single reason they would dismiss him and I just can’t. It very much seems like a power trip because they’ve only been in power for a month and they really have no idea of the value that Craig and Greg bring to the union.”

The dismissals occurred just two weeks after the Dalhousie Student Union announced on its Facebook page on May 28 that it had applied for “Prospective Membership with the Canadian Federation of Students and their provincial chapter CFS-NS.”

“The CFS is Canada’s oldest and largest student organization uniting over 500,000 students from across the country,” the post reads. “Prospective membership entails that Dalhousie students will gain a year of full access to the campaigns and services of the CFS.”

The CFS has remained a controversial part of university politics due to its support and enforcement of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions policies, which have been acknowledged and condemned as anti-Semitism by the Canadian government.

Castillo said the reasoning she was given for her termination was that the newly elected DSU executive wanted the job to be more media relations focused and determined that she was no longer qualified for the position. However, the position has not been reposted yet, causing Castillo to speculate as to the validity of that statement.

“If it was simply that the focus of the position was shifting, why didn’t they immediately re-post the job? When they voted to join CFS, I had pointed out the policy and bylaw violations and also the conflict of interest issues to Calista Hills, the Vice-President Internal, and also pushed for them to follow the Consultation Policy regarding the issue,” Castillo said.

Kennedy’s and Wright’s former positions have since been posted on the DSU’s website, however, Castillo’s position remains unlisted.

“Hills also asked me directly what I thought of CFS as an organization, claiming she didn’t have a strong opinion on it yet, and I was open to saying I had some concerns about membership. It was particularly concerning how running the referendum to join would be in direct conflict of DSU bylaws and policies, and how membership would require a large amount of student fee money to go to an external organization. This leads me to speculate that the executive wants someone in this role who does not point out unethical behaviour and is a strong supporter of CFS,” said Castillo.

An archived version of the CFS website from April 30 displayed Abawajy’s name as a summer intern, but on the same page on the current live website, her name is nowhere to be seen. Abawajy has listed her involvement as a Campaigns Assistant with the CFS since May 2018 on her LinkedIn profile.

“It seems so much like for the longest time we were not a part of the CFS and then the one year that [the executive] are [affiliated] with them, there’s suddenly all this restructuring and it doesn’t seem ethical to me,” said Breton Doucet, the former Member Services Coordinator.

Paul Whyte, the Communications and Outreach Coordinator before Castillo, said in an email that there are “blatant conflicts of interest” regarding Abawajy’s involvement in both the DSU as President and the CFS-NS as a paid summer intern.

“If this wasn’t declared as a conflict of interest, that would be a problem. Isa [the DSU Vice President, Finance and Operations] was an official NSCAD rep to the CFS last year and is now the Women’s Rep for the CFS. She should have also declared this to Council.”

Whyte said he gave his notice several months before the new executive got elected and that it seems like misinformation is being shared by the executive claiming that Castillo voluntarily left her position. He feels that there is an overall lack of transparency and accountability in the new executive.

“Prior to my departure, I witnessed some activities that, in my mind, could potentially be breaches of the DSU Bylaw policy … Overall, I think there was just a sense that the new executive had a very detailed agenda and they were going to do whatever it took, including possibly breaking bylaws and policy, to reach their goals.”

Bylaw 12 outlines the terms in which the DSU is able to enter into a formal agreement with another organization.

“The essential part of this is that the current executive has knowingly entered into a legally binding contract as CFS Prospective Members despite the fact that our bylaws and CFS’s bylaws are at odds with one another and they did not receive a written opinion from a DSU legal advisor,” Whyte wrote in an email Saturday afternoon. “Obligating the DSU to run a referendum according to CFS Bylaws also puts us in contravention of Bylaw 9: Elections and Referenda.

“Isa informed me that Council was hand-picked and explicitly directed me to hide information from the General Manager and Policy and Governance Coordinator regarding prospective membership with the CFS,” wrote Whyte.

Posters were placed on the walls in the SUB last week informing people of a vote for the full-time staff to unionize.

“There is a clear pattern of unethical behavior when schools join the CFS (even as prospective members). Staff are slashed and stacked with those who are more closely aligned with CFS principles and values. I’ve heard through the grapevine that staff at unions who are CFS-member locals often fear job loss, urging them to seek protection by unionizing and establishing a collective bargaining process. Frankly, the slash and stack seem to be happening at the DSU,” Whyte wrote.

An article written in 2017 by Aidan Currie in The Varsity, the University of Toronto’s student newspaper, unveiled allegations made by Selkirk College Students’ Union that the CFS interfered with student union elections, “contradicting previous claims made by the Former National Chairperson Bilan Arte that the CFS is uninvolved in student union elections.”

Whyte’s understanding of the full-time staff unionizing is that it means situations like these can no longer happen.

“This executive is newly elected on an annual basis and there are staff who have been there upwards of 30 years, and in one fell swoop, the executive could decide to clean the house,” said Whyte in an interview. “I think anyone who would hear that would agree that it doesn’t sound fair and I think that being part of a union will allow the full-time staff of the DSU to have justice.

Whyte said it’s not fair that a team of five newly-elected people on an annual basis have the power to take away peoples’ jobs. “These people have families to support and almost overnight that has been taken away from them.”

Whyte said he does not believe what the executive is saying.

“They’re calling it a ‘restructuring’, which I would call B.S. on because the Grawood is a bar, Greg is a bar manager, and I’m just not entirely sure how they can restructure that position in a way that would constitute something that would make sense, but I also don’t have the other half of the picture,” Whyte said.

“The student union has been around for a very long time and [the full-time staff] haven’t, until this point, felt the need to unionize,” said Whyte. “Even when I was still there, I sensed a certain element of toxicity; there was a dramatic shift when the new executive came in and I think it really speaks to the leadership of this executive. It’s one of intimidation and bullying and a lack of transparency which has caused an atmosphere of fear in the DSU.”

The vote for unionization will occur on Monday, June 24 in room 307 of the Student Union Building at 9:30 a.m. local time.

Allie Jehle

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Journalist. Writer. @alliejehle on Twitter.