Canada's first chamber of commerce dedicated to serve Black-owned businesses has overhauled its leadership team following a tumultuous several weeks that saw the departure of its president and allegations of poor management from disgruntled former volunteers.
The Canadian Black Chamber of Commerce (CBCC) announced the changes last week, though factions within the organization disagree on what exactly triggered the upheaval.
Andria Barrett, the CBCC's former president, has accused the chamber of operating for years with insufficient accountability and transparency. She said those concerns created a significant and irreconcilable divide between the chamber's board of directors and its volunteer operations team.
"I think it's important for everyone to realize non-profit organizations should not be run like private businesses," said Barrett in an interview.
"There are rules and regulations that need to be followed."
Barrett says she resigned from her position on Monday, Jan. 11, though the CBCC insists its board of directors voted to fire her in a meeting a day earlier because they say she had made false accusations.
Pamela Gordon, the chamber's former director of communications who was fired in late December, pinned the blame directly on the CBCC's founder and former chair of the board.
"I would say the organization was being run as a dictatorship by the chairman Michael Forrest," Gordon said.
Forrest announced his resignation from the chamber's board of directors last week, citing a desire to divert unwanted attention from the organization. He vehemently denies the allegations of mismanagement.
"I felt it was important to step aside and ensure that this negative personal attack on myself does not reflect on the chamber," Forrest told CBC Toronto.
The CBCC said board member Everett Russell was unanimously appointed chair following Forrest's resignation.
Funding and support has surged since summer of 2020
The CBCC was formally created in April 2019 after years of development by a group of founding members. It charges its members $250 annually for access to services, including advertising, marketing and networking.
Concerns over the chamber's financial management and accountability have escalated since the summer of 2019, when the CBCC received newfound attention following the global Black Lives Matter protests and subsequent calls to better support Black-owned businesses.
Since July 2020, the chamber has announced new funding from numerous private donors, including a $500,000 donation from Facebook, in addition to partnerships with other large corporations, including Uber and Sobey's.
The chamber is also said to be applying for additional funding through the federal government's $221-million Black Entrepreneurship Program announced in September 2020.
But former volunteers on the CBCC's operations team say the chamber was never set up to properly handle such large donations and partnerships.
Barrett says the chamber has never crafted a proper constitution and does not regularly make information such as the minutes from its meetings or financial statements available to its paying members.
"[Forrest] does what he wants to do," added Gordon. "He runs it like it's his own business."
Chamber a safe place for donors and members, founder says
"The allegations are utterly false," said Forrest in response to those concerns. "Basically, it's a disgruntled former volunteer, the past president, who is definitely trying to malign the chamber."
Forrest said he will no longer serve on the board of directors, but will remain a member of the chamber and retain his title as founder.
The CBCC says its restructured leadership group will ensure the organization is accountable to both donors and members.
"We understand the distraction that this is posing," said Christelle Francois, the CBCC's public relations lead. "We're really focused on moving forward for the community and our partners."
Chedwick Creightney, a CBCC member and Ajax business owner, said organizations that support Black-owned businesses are badly needed, especially given the disproportionate financial effects of the pandemic.
He lamented the departures of Barrett and Gordon, describing them as "the heartbeat of the chamber," but said he intends to remain a member while the transformation takes place.
"There's such a crucial need for it," Creightney said. "It's something that has to go on and we have to find out what the heck is going on."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.