CAS speaks: The Canadian AIDS Society Interview

Published 21, Dec, 2015
Author // Bob Leahy - Publisher

In a frank, no holds-barred interview Bob Leahy talks to CAS Board Chair David Stempowski and Executive Director Gary Lacasse about the turbulent months behind it - and the future ahead

CAS speaks: The Canadian AIDS Society Interview

 Bob Leahy: First of all congratulations, David, your appointment was announced yesterday. How do you feel about that? 

David Stempwoski: I’m absolutely elated, Bob. I’m excited about the future and moving forward in a constructive way. It’s an exciting time for me. 

Bob: Tell me why you both are speaking to now. 

David: We always knew we were going to do an interview with you, Bob. In fact you are our first official interview to address all these issues, because we know how well you are connected in the community. Our concern was that our silence was going to be interpreted as not caring and, you know, it was important for us to let things stabilize a little bit, so that we could address all the issues in a calm and collected manner. 

Bob: I wanted to ask you both, it’s been a difficult time for you, the last couple of months. How have you been bearing up? 

Gary Lacasse: It was a stressful time because we hadn’t seen this coming at all. There were a few things pointing towards what we had to move on; we all have at heart CAS’s leadership and CAS’s involvement with members and we wanted that to continue. How to get there was the crux of the matter and how to bring everybody everybody back together. 

Bob: Did you ever think of giving up? 

Gary: I’m extremely strong-willed and these are the kind of situations where I thrive but at a certain point we did have to step back and see the board’s responsibility towards the agency in terms of personal liability and say if it goes one way, we would be looking at CAS going bankrupt. That was on the radar. So we had to maneuver ourselves so that the central thought and objective was maintaining CAS and continuing its mission. 

Bob: And David, how are you holding up? 

David: Bob, I’m a fighter as well and first and foremost, it should always be about people living with HIV, so giving up was never an option for me. I have a little bit more free time than others might have but regardless, I wouldn’t have given up. I just wouldn’t. CAS has been around for many, many years and I was just not going to play a role in seeing it dismantled. 

Bob. OK I want to talk about what has happened the last couple of months. I want to go back to the beginning of the story, I guess when the three CAS staffers asked for a meeting with the board. Did you have an inkling at that time that something was wrong or that they were unhappy? 

Gary: Bob, I was chair at the time and I was working quite closely with Kim (Thomas) at the time because Monique (Doolittle-Romas, former chief executive officer) had been off for eleven weeks. I had no idea this was coming up. I got a phone call on the Friday stating that I would be getting a letter before 5 pm. 

Bob: So you were completely surprised? 

Gary: I was, because I had not been privy to any to warning signs from the acting CEO at that time (Kim) as to any problem whatsoever. We had had the AGM that preceded this letter that clearly told us we had to change how we were working – and that’s what we were working on during the whole summer period, rolling out a new draft strategic plan that the acting CEO and myself  were working on. 

Bob:  Did you feel that there was any truth to the allegations?  I mean they were talking about things like lack of communication and responsiveness to members.  

Gary: I was surprised because what we had heard from our employee evaluations and what we had heard from the team during the summer were the complete opposite of what they said in the letter. They had an open and two-way communication with the CEO at the time. 

Bob: So the board decided to conduct an operational review? 

Gary: I flew in to Ottawa from where I was on vacation – I had been on vacation for 24 hours – and that’s why we could not initially respond to a meeting within 24 hours. It was the weekend. We had numerous calls during the weekend between the executive committee and the board to see how we could have a meeting, so I came to Ottawa and spent the week doing an operational review. We met with employees and then we went line by line with all the specific items (the letter) brought up. I went back in to the information systems and control systems we have and found justification or non-justification for each point. 

Bob: But you were not communicating with the three staff members who wrote the letter. 

Gary: The communications that were going out to the three staff members at the time involved setting up a meeting. The first offer to meet was refused – and we answered by saying “you are still on payroll and we need to meet to find resolution to your situation.” So the next day David and I met with the three employees and we discussed each item that they had brought forth. 

Bob: David: how did that meeting go? 

David. Well, Gary and I were sure to open the meeting emphasizing that it was a safe environment for them. We wanted to let them know that we were there to listen to them. We didn’t want them to feel threatened. A lot of the points they brought up painted a picture where they felt threatened in the workplace, that they weren’t being heard – so it was our mandate to ensure they did feel safe. As Gary had said there had been no indication at the board that this discontent was present, so that was a bit disconcerting in terms of Monique’s position . . . it was our understanding that there weren’t any problems within the staff. I was vice-chair at the time and the only indication I had of any discontent or issues on the table was regarding a CPPN press conference. Christian (Hui) had asked if I would attend and my intention was to attend, (staffer) Jeff (Potts) was going to attend as a person living with HIV and he was going to speak on behalf of CAS. As with any board, the CEO and the chair are designated to speak on behalf of CAS. I had very amicably suggested we maybe put something in writing (for Jeff to use) rather than “wing it”. That’s when I started to sense there was some discontent because Jeff felt that he was being penalized or reprimanded, rather than just wanting to go ahead. But that was never the case. It’s just that there are certain guidelines we have to adhere to.

Bob: He ended up not speaking at the event. 

David: He didn’t. I just thought that it was important that if we were going to be speaking on behalf of CAS that everybody be on board as to the message that was going to be conveyed. That’s when things started to disintegrate, at least from my perception. 

Bob: So back to you Gary, you said you conducted an operational review and you didn’t find anything there to substantiate the claims? But did those claims not talk about the wider issue of CAS being unresponsive to membership? 

Gary:  That’s was brought up and that was addressed. As I said earlier that was my main concern as the new chair coming in in June – that we had to engage and that we had to communicate with our members and in a more efficient way. 

Bob: So if the staff members did bring that up they were correct that work needed to be done in bridging the gap between CAS and its members. Because members had also identified that as an issue. 

Gary: Exactly. 

Bob: So the next thing that happened after the letter was that the situation was being covered in but also Ontario ED’s had a meeting which resulted in a number of letters quite strongly focusing on the issue of member engagement, CAS responsiveness etc. and asking for Monique’s resignation. That must have been challenging to resolve. 

Gary: Yes it was because we have to work with the employee standards that exist in each province and if we had looked at different scenarios and possibilities, we could have been bankrupt. 

Bob: In what way? 

Gary: Let’s say we would have found fault in Monique’s management of CAS. We would have said, OK we are terminating her job. The cost of giving a package or severance  . . and this comes to the point where this whole issue put us in a situation where the board would have been responsible in a bankruptcy situation that could have happened with the payouts we might have faced, and each board member would have been responsible for that payment if CAS wasn’t solvent anymore. 

Bob: So can you walk us through Monique’s decision to resign? 

Gary: Well Monique had received an offer during this whole situation for a new job and Monique had decided that “for me what is important that CAS continues and the best resolution we could have is if I step away.” So that’s how it came about. Monique, for the good of CAS and its members, decided to accept the position where she is now. (‎Executive Director at The Good Companions Centre, Ottawa). That gave us an opportunity to rebuild. 

Bob: So when Monique resigned you quickly had to find a replacement Executive Director.  Now Gary, the circumstances surrounding your appointment have come up for a bit of examination. Tell me how that happened. 

Gary: Well, I’ll walk you through what I can because the hiring process was not in my hands, it was in David’s and the board’s. What happened was that when Monique tendered her resignation we had a lawyer working with us and we had a consultant working in crisis management. The situation we were faced with was replacing her either with someone in an interim or permanent position. I put out feelers in the not-for-profit sector with leaders in the industry here in Ottawa and I asked them “can you suggest anybody for an interim position or – if we have to – go to a permanent solution", because our consultants were telling us we could not leave that position open. We also looked at hiring a head-hunting firm, but the costs involved were prohibitive. You have to put into perspective our capacity to pay which is extremely diminished at the moment. What we heard from the non-profit sector here in Ottawa was that nobody would touch that job with a ten foot pole, because of the crisis. So the executive committee said “Gary would you take the interim position”. I had a discussion with my husband and my family and my husband, being from this region, said “I wouldn’t mind going back."I called my lawyer and said “this is the situation, what do you suggest?”  And he said “if you take the interim you have to quit your job at Maison Plein Couer and you may not have a job in 3-6 months. So what do you want to do?” So I went back to the executive committee and said “this is my proposal and I would not accept an interim, so I will leave the call now and let you guys fight it out.” 

Bob: And the board voted you in. But David, that didn’t go down very well, the optics were not good and we heard accusations from the community of conflict of interest in that the board was appointing one of its own. Did you anticipate that the appointment might not be well received? 

Dave: Well keeping in mind that we were in crisis mode at this point, I think the perception out there was that we just came to a rash decision in appointing Gary as our new ED, which was downgraded from the CEO position . . . 

Bob: Why did you do that by the way? 

David: It was Gary that suggested it. We supported it because it spoke to our willingness to work with the community and show them that we are not just handing out positions left, right and centre. That was never the case. It took the executive, myself included, a great deal of restraint from coming to any rash decisions. We had to sit back and look at it calmly and do what we felt was best for CAS. 

Bob: But the fact is that the decision wasn’t well received, at least by a faction of the membership. 

Gary: Let me contextualize this some more. We were being led by an extremely well-informed lawyer, and the executive were in consultation with the lawyer once I stepped back to let them go through whatever process they wanted. Our lawyer went through our processes, our manuals and it opened a path for that. The board gave the executive the right to make any decisions it had to make to keep CAS alive. 

Bob: So your appointment was made initially at the Executive Committee or was it a full board meeting? 

David: The Executive recommended it and we presented it to the full board the following Friday. They accepted our recommendation. 

Bob: Did you have a quorum? 

David: Yes we did. 

Bob: But not every board member was present. 

Gary: Ten were present. 

Bob: The allegation from Fanta (Ongoiba, the executive director of Africans in Partnership, and also Ontario representative on the CAS board) was that she was not party to that decision but also that she was not informed of it afterwards. Is that correct? 

David: That is not correct. I personally reached out to Fanta afterwards; she had explained that she couldn’t make the call that day because she had a meeting at CAMH, I think, but naturally that day we were very specific that ours was an urgent board call and that we requested everybody’s attendance. I called Fanta about three days later to explain to her our reasoning, how it came about. We had a very in-depth conversation about it al. So I was bit disappointed that none of that was referenced in the ( interview. I actually implored her – she had teetered with the idea of resigning from the board. I implored her not to do that, we had to work cohesively as a team on the same objective, the survival of CAS. 

Bob: OK, moving on we are now in an era where xtra has picked up on the story, having read about it on and deciding to put their own reporter on it. Generally how do you feel about the xtra reporting? 

Gary: We refused to do an interview with them. 

Bob: Why was that? That didn’t get a very good response either. Why would you not want to set the record straight or tell your side of the story? 

Gary: Many people refused the interview. Our consultant suggested we don’t do the interview. I don’t think it was time to reignite the fires either. I think it was time to work for closure – or as much as we can get – and start rebuilding what CAS can become in time, on how do we refocus and re-energize CAS. 

Bob: We haven’t dealt with one of the major things that was happening around that time, and that was emanating particularly from Ontario, where a number of members either resigned or expressed their intention to resign. I heard from one agency they just didn’t feel they were getting their money’s worth from their membership fee. 

Gary: I would respond that as members of a national coalition .  .  .  we have to look back in time to understand what’s happened. The concentration of our AGMs always been on funding. We were never able to speak about project-specific points at our annual meeting. I even got up as a member a couple of years back and said “guys, can we talk about our programs and can we listen to our people living with HIV and how we are going to move forward with our programs?”  I took the time when I was chair and we were getting resignations as a sounding bell that we had to get our act together. But we also represent five regions in Canada, not only Ontario, and we have to listen to all our members. And our other members were not saying the same thing. But we also have to acknowledge that we have to address the issues in one region. That’s what we were moving forward to do. I have had discussions with a few of the people who have pulled out their memberships since the crisis and there is a willingness to wait and see how we progress and how we respond. A few actions we have done since have been positively received. 

Bob: In the meantime though you have an organization which is missing a chunk of the ASO’s in Canada’s most populous province, where more new infections and more people living with HIV occur than in any other province. How does that impact your ability to claim to be a national voice for HIV issues in Canada, when you now have major organizations like ACT and Toronto PWA not part of your membership? 

David: I want to go back to how we felt as a board and as a national organization when some of the Ontario members pulled out. It was disheartening and of course as a  person living with HIV, I always look at the bottom line and how it affects people living with HIV. I think we need to move forward and get away from this notion that we are vilifying Ontario region. That doesn’t serve anybody any good. It’s not constructive, it’s not positive, it’s counterproductive. And coming from Ontario myself, losing these key members has only made me and CAS want to work harder to gain them back. 

Gary: But let me just add that we do represent 82 members from across Canada, and those 82 members are from every province. Of course it hurts when you lose the two biggest ones from one region but you have to understand that we understand that we do serve a lot of Ontario ASOs still. 

Bob: OK. So guys, we have combed through the past and now I want to ask you David what are your priorities for the future, in terms of membership. If I’m reading you correctly you have said you want to regain trust and reinforce membership levels to what they were before? 

David: I think we need to show all our members, but specifically the lost members that we are working hard to regain . .  I’ve heard from members that this wasn’t a problem that happened overnight, this happened over years so we can’t expect to fix them overnight either. We need to put things in place and I think the strategic plan is a perfect place to start.  We need to listen to the members out there. 

Bob: Previous attempts at getting a strategic plan approved have been marred by the fact that members have brought up issues like insufficient consultation, and that members’ views were not reflected in the strategic plan. How are you going to make sure that the process works properly this time? 

Gary: I just want to add that what we have changed is that when a board vacancy becomes  available we write to all members in that region to ask for letters of intent from anybody who wants to position themselves to take the board seat that was vacated. That was well received and how Gerry Croteau (Ontario) was appointed and Jean-Baptiste Henry (Quebec) was appointed. It’s a new process. And with the strategic plan we sent out a request for participation of five people in a steering committee that will help our Policy and Development Committee in realigning the strategic plan in 2016. So we are going to have a representative from every region and five people living with HIV representing every region also. We have rehired our consultant that did the first one to combine with the efforts of everyone involved to bring a new strategic plan to our members in 2016. 

Bob: One of the stumbling blocks of the previous strategic plan – one of the points of contention – was its inclusion of Hep C in the CAS mandate. How would you resolve that particular aspect? 

Gary: I can’t say how because the committee is being put in place. But this is a personal opinion, I strongly believe that if we say we are doing HIV and including STBBI’s (sexually transmitted blood-borne infections) looking through an HIV lens, that would be acceptable to all our members. Will that be agreed to by the steering committee? That’s up to them to decide. 

Bob: OK, looking to the future, how confident are you that you are in a position to influence federal government decision-making, PHAC, decision-making? 

Gary: I’ve already had meetings with the feds. I believe we have established our working parameters. Our relationship is a respectful one; It's one that’s based on the needs of ASOs and the needs of people living with HIV. 

Bob: One of Monique’s strengths is that she had a lot of connections on Parliament Hill. Do you have those connections Gary? 

Gary: Monique has helped me the first week I was here to establish those connections and we have had subsequent meetings, those people and I. They went well. We had our gala on November 30 which was an extremely interesting place to meet with the decision-makers from Parliament Hill in building on those relationships. 

Bob: I talked to Julio Montaner earlier this week on the area of influencing the federal government and one of the issues he mentioned – and I asked him particularly about the work of CAS and CTAC and CATIE – he said you were prohibited from doing your best work by the fact that you accept PHAC funding which limits your ability to advocate as strongly as an agency (like his) which doesn’t receive public funding. To what extent is CAS inhibited from criticizing the federal government? 

Gary: Our PHAC funding at the moment represents less than 50% of our operations.

Bob: It doesn’t matter. Doesn’t it behove you to toe the line to some extent? 

Gary: Not at all. We never have. What we have done with PHAC money is to empower us to bring deliverables to our members. But I have told PHAC already that we will  disagree moving forward, but that we will disagree in a respectful way as we negotiate funding, negotiate how PHAC restructures, have a strategic plan or not, with our national partners. I think the minister made very clear at the Aboriginal breakfast last week that if we do not find a way to work together in the HIV sector it will be to our detriment. So that’s what we are working towards. But regarding accepting funding from whoever, if we don’t get funding we are not going to exist. I think by accepting money to be used for xyz, and I’m a lobbyist too and any lobbying I do is completely separate from the funding structure that PHAC gives us. 

Bob: That’s an answer but I hear from the other national partners that they are on occasion chastised for criticizing government policy. National partners are not immune to being told what they can and cannot say about the performance of the government. But let’s move on. Let me ask you Gary your priorities for CAS, can you summarize? 

Gary: It’s to create a communication process with our members that engages but is retroactive. If we don’t have a retroactive dialogue with our members we are not going to move forward. That’s number one: communicate better and more transparently with our members. Not that we weren’t doing it but the perception of what we were doing has changed. We are going to have more engagement of our members in ad hoc committees in the work we are doing. Another thing is that I would like to have an ED summit every year where we can talk about what we do and how we can do it better, looking at best practices across the country so that ASO’s are empowered to build capacity. And looking at 90-90-90, how can we integrate that into our ASOs? PrEP is going to be a huge thing for our ASOs too. 

Bob: David I’m going to ask you, what do you see as priorities for the national AIDS movement that you would like to see CAS push for, with a particular focus on the needs of people living with HIV? 

David: Well especially in light of developments we have seen lately with the pharmaceutical gentleman dramatically raising the cost of HIV drugs, our mandate should be easy access to HIV medication for all  HIV patients across the country – a national Pharmacare program. I think that needs to be put out front and centre. As a person living with HIV and chair that’s something I’m going to be working towards with Gary, to see how we can lobby for that. 

Bob: What do you see as the future of the CAS People Living with HIV Forum, David? How can we make that work better? 

David: I think we need to engage more people living with HIV on our committees so that we have a stronger voice nationally. We are losing sight of that need, not just on a national level, but locally. I think we need to bring it back to the grassroots of the AIDS movement. We are the reason the movement exists. 

Bob: In the last year an organization has formed called CPPN (Canadian Positive People Network), an organization which you are very familiar with, that has started to recruit members and is becoming well known and starting to speak for people living with HIV. How would you see the relationship existing between CPPN and CAS? 

David: I want to put it on the record that I think CPPN is a wonderful organization, I think Christian (Hui) and his colleagues are doing a wonderful job. I was one of the first people to fill out the membership application form. We have always wanted to work cohesively with CPPN. Sadly. with the crisis we incurred at CAS over the last couple of months, it derailed that collaboration, so I’m excited about picking that up where we left off. This is all about looking forward, not not addressing what has happened in the past but moving forward in collaboration with CPPN to be a stronger voice for people living with HIV. We can do that together. 

Bob: And there are other relationships you probably need to work on.  You haven’t had a great relationship with the Ontario AIDS Network (OAN). Are you planning to address that? 

David: Absolutely. We need to move away from the concept of this division between the Ontario Caucus and the rest of the regions. We need to embrace a more collaborative effort and that’s something we plan on doing with the OAN in the next couple of months. I know Gary has already reached out to them and this discord that has existed. . I think the OAN is the perfect place to start to rebuild those relationships. 

Bob: OK I am going to wrap up, so finally tell me what you both would like the community to know about CAS now. 

David: I want them to know that they should feel secure in knowing that we have a stronger PHA voice at the table now with me as chair and that I’m working in the best interests of people living with HIV. That’s why I’ve accepted this position, that’s why I’m in it, and that’s what I fight for. I want them to know that the last couple of months is not indicative of who we are as a national organization, and I implore everybody to reflect on the good days of CAS and to believe that we can return to that. 

Gary: I’ve been involved in the movement for almost ten years now and it’s one that has driven me to be who I am now. But as David is saying if we cannot rebuild and reconstruct with all voices included we will not attain the objective we have set out. If you have pulled out you don’t have a voice anymore and I would ask those people to reconsider and to come back. We need to have a discussion and move forward in a collaborative way. I’m sure the best years are ahead of us. 

Bob: I think that’s a good place to end, Gary and David. Thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us. 

Editor's note: a previous version of this story indicated that Gary Lacasse is a person living witb HIV. regrets the error.

About the Author

Bob Leahy - Publisher

Bob Leahy - Publisher

Award-winning blogger Bob Leahy first made his social media mark a decade ago on where there are still to this day almost 3,000 entries of his available to be read. He was a featured blogger on Ontario’s campaign, along with founder Brian Finch. He joined at its inception in 2009 and became it's Editor a year later.

Born in the UK, Bob’s background is in corporate banking, which he gladly left in 1994, after being diagnosed with HIV the previous year.  He has chaired the board of PARN (Peterborough AIDS Resource Network) and has been an executive board member of both the Ontario HIV Treatment Network (OHTN) and the Canadian AIDS Society (CAS).  He was inducted in to the Ontario AIDS Network’s Honour Roll in 2005.  Bob is currently a member of Ontario’s GMSH (Gay Men’s Sexual Health Alliance). He also writes for

In 2012, Bob was honoured with the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal for his work and commitment to HIV/AIDS in Canada.

Bob continues to write for this site while in the Positivelite.Com editor’s seat, with a particular interest  in HIV prevention, theatre and the arts in general. He is accredited media for a number of Toronto theatres. He lives in Warkworth, Ontario with his partner of thirty-two years and three dogs.