With the help of a Kingston lawyer, two volunteers dismissed without warning by 4-H Ontario have sent a letter to the Guelph head office of the organization asking for a meeting with the board executive as well as Chief Executive Officer Wraychel Horne and Manager of Volunteer Support and Development Mitch Corriveau.
The two volunteers, with over 60 years of 4-H service between them, are also demanding that 4-H Ontario provide the reasons for which they were dismissed and immediate reinstatement.
John Ryder-Burbidge, a civil litigation lawyer who works mostly for individuals seeking to defend their rights, met with Harriet Corkey and Ruth Shannon after their appeal was rejected by Horne. The women were able to hire Ryder-Burbidge with financial support from local agricultural associations, including the Frontenac Federation of Agriculture.
Harriet Corkey had been a leader with the Frontenac 4-H Association for 23 years and president for 10 years, and Ruth Shannon had been a leader for 39 years, when they received a registered letter on September 8 informing them of their dismissal, effective immediately, for breach of the 4-H Code of Conduct. The identical letters, signed by Corriveau, did not specify how the two women had breached the Code of Conduct, but did include excerpts from the Code, including "4-H participants will respect, adhere to and enforce rules, policies and guidelines . . . 4-H members, volunteers, guests and stakeholders shall be treated using appropriate and courteous manners . . . 4-H participants will conduct themselves in a courteous and respectful manner, exhibit good sportsmanship and act as a positive role model for those around them . . . Emotional, physical, verbal, mental or sexual abuse . . . will not be tolerated."
A third 4-H leader received a similar letter of warning.
The letters of dismissal came completely out of the blue to the two volunteers, who say they have never received a written reprimand or warning from 4-H Ontario and are completely at a loss to explain the action by 4-H Ontario.
The registered letters arrived three weeks after an August 11 meeting of the Frontenac 4-H Association, attended by Lola McEvoy, Coordinator, Volunteer Support for Region 2, which includes Frontenac, Dundas, Carleton, Glengarry, Grenville, Lanark, Leeds, Prescott, Russell, Renfrew and Stormont. At that meeting, at which Association members questioned several recent decisions by the 4-H Council, McEvoy surprised the volunteers by abruptly walking out of the meeting, exclaiming that if they didn't like the way things were, they could all quit.
The next day, Corkey sent an email on behalf of the Association apologizing to McEvoy. "I said, 'We're not picking on you, we just have questions for 4-H and want you to get the answers'."
Corkey never received a reply. The next communication from 4-H Ontario was her letter of dismissal.
Despite requesting more information from Horne, Corkey and Shannon have never been able to find out exactly what actions or behaviour of theirs constituted a breach of the Code of Conduct. They were told that information is confidential.
Contacted by AgriNews, Horne said that the August 11 meeting raised concerns of workplace safety, character defamation and Bill 168 (An Act to Amend the Occupational Health and Safety Act with respect to violence and harassment in the workplace and other matters).
However, that did not stop McEvoy from attending an October meeting at the same place.
Stephanie Craig, 4-H Ontario's Senior Manager of Communications, said she could not go into specifics, but insisted there is a "long notification process of a year or more that is always followed" before volunteers are dismissed and that dismissal occurs only when the process is not working or taking the desired effect.
Both Corkey and Shannon filed letters of appeal, supported with dozens of letters of reference and a petition with some 450 names. But Horne denied their request for reinstatement.
It has been over two months since the women were dismissed and they are still in the dark about why they were terminated. The question torments them: it's the first thing they think of when they wake up in the morning and it keeps them awake at night. "Why? What did we do?"
It doesn't get any easier as time goes on, said Corkey. On the contrary. "The longer it goes on, the harder it is to take. Just the not knowing. We have no idea of what it is we were supposed to have done."
And she's worried about Shannon. "Ruth is getting thinner by the day."
"It's all I think about," said Shannon. "I'm still trying to figure out what I did."
Both are puzzled by the silence of the 4-H Council, whose members say it is an operational matter and refuse to become involved.
"I understand that Wraychel's job is to protect her staff and she is just doing her job," said Shannon. "But who is going to protect 4-H?"