People on strike from Many Rivers hold up signs and flags along Fourth Avenue in Whitehorse on Nov. 6. Workers went back to work in January after reaching an agreement, but as many as 16 of those unionized employees have now received layoff notices. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

A month after agreeing to a new contract, Many Rivers counsellors get layoff notices

‘They’ve been put between a rock and a hard place, big time here’

On the heels of a months-long strike, unionized counsellors at Many Rivers have been laid off, a move the president of Yukon Employees’ Union is calling out.

“I think it’s bullshit,” said Steve Geick, adding that counsellors have been put “between a rock and hard place.”

“Someone needs to step in, get rid of that board,” he said, noting that the Department of Health and Social Services should provide bridge funding so there aren’t any service interruptions.

The layoffs will be staggered, beginning on Feb.22 and ending on Mar. 22, said Geick, adding that he received 16 layoff notices. Twelve of those are counsellors, the rest are administrative staff.

Geick said he believes Many Rivers had been planning the layoffs for “quite some time,” referring to the fact that the organization hasn’t been in compliance with the territorial Societies Act for months, meaning it can’t get government funding. The organization has failed to file annual reports and financial statements since July 2018 as required by the act.

In a written statement, Sunny Patch, director of communications for the premier’s office, said an independent investigator has been retained by the Registrar of Societies to deal with “several complaints regarding this society.”

“A report of this investigation has been received,” she wrote, adding that copies have been provided to the organization and complainants.

“The Registrar will make a decision based on the report and any response(s) received from Many Rivers or the complainants,” Patch said.

Submissions can be entered until Mar. 4.

The organization will remain non-compliant until the registrar completes its review, she said.

Some complaints were lodged against the organization for refusing to approve membership applications, according to a Many Rivers press release.

The organization claims the investigator found that it “acted reasonably and in good faith in rejecting applications at issue.”

“The applications were rejected on the basis that they were incomplete and due to concerns that the applicants were likely not eligible for membership,” the press release says.

The report, however, has a less than firm conclusion about this, saying that “it seems probable” Many Rivers acted in good faith in terms of the membership issue.

“Generally the facts show considerable delay by the Society in responding to or addressing the membership applications,” the report says. “In addition, the facts show confusion over the requirements of the Society as to what forms were required and how and when the applications would be processed….”

The report says there are nine complainants.

In its statement, Many Rivers blames the layoffs on “an anticipated temporary stoppage of funding by the Department of Health and Social Services.”

The funding agreement with the department requires that Many Rivers be in good standing.

The organization says it has submitted its documentation to the registrar, but says those documents aren’t being filed until after the investigation is complete.

Many Rivers suggests those who complained could choose to withdraw their complaints based on what the investigator revealed.

“Doing so,” it says, “would put an end to the investigation and avoid the possibility of layoffs and reduced services pending the outcome of the Registrar’s investigation.”

In the interim, Many Rivers is attempting to keep its doors open, “including possible short-term funding from Health and Social Services.”

Wendy Morrison, a member of Friends of Many Rivers, penned a letter to the board of directors before word got out about the layoffs, calling for an annual general meeting.

The position of the public group remains unchanged.

“We’re still calling for the meeting and wanting membership to be opened up to the society because that’s all been closed off for many months,” Morrison said.

The investigative report provides three recommendations, one of which says that complainants and members should be given the opportunity to re-apply for memberships.

“There’s a breakdown of trust happening, and, unfortunately, that’s going to extend to the clients, not being able to trust the consistency of those services in the near future,” Morrison said.

A new collective agreement was ratified with Many Rivers on Jan. 22, Geick said, and employees started to trickle back to work less than two weeks ago.

The workers were out on strike for nearly three months. They eventually landed a five-year agreement, with salary increases and more flexible hours.

Only to be punted by layoffs after these efforts adds insult to injury, Geick continued, in that workers returned under “false pretenses.”

“There is no other organization that can provide those services for free.”

Many Rivers is active in Whitehorse, Haines Junction, Dawson City and Watson Lake.

Marina Bailey, the former chair of the board, is filling in as executive director following the resignation of Brent Ramsey.

The News reached out to Bailey for comment, but didn’t receive a response.

The layoffs pose another threat.

Geick said management at Many Rivers is leaving clients in “potential life and death situations,” noting that some people have had to go to the hospital because of the vacuum that’s been created.

“My heart goes out to the people who need the services.”

Patch said Yukoners “can access mental health services through Mental Wellness and Substance Use in Whitehorse, and through the mental health hubs in rural communities. In addition, the Yukon Mental Health Association has received funding to provide additional services.”

Contact Julien Gignac at julien.gignac@yukon-news.com

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