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Head of Quebec college created toxic workplace, psychologically harassed others, tribunal hears

Current and former employees of Champlain College’s campus in Lennoxville, Que., testified at a labour tribunal detailing conflict-of-interest and harassment allegations against the campus director.

4 current and former managers testified during hearings into allegations at CEGEP in Lennoxville, Que.

A woman looks directly at the camera standing outside a building

The campus director for Champlain College Lennoxville is at the centre of a slew of psychological harassment, nepotism and conflict-of-interest allegations from current and former senior employees, CBC News has learned.

Nancy Beattie is the subject of ongoing hearings at the Tribunal administratif du travail, Quebec's labour tribunal.

Four people who reported to Beattie at the college have testified under oath against her, including one person who is the plaintiff in the case.

None of the people who testified at the tribunal — including Beattie — agreed to speak on the record. Through the tribunal, CBC News was able to obtain nine days of recorded testimony that was recorded in January, February and earlier this month. No judgement has been rendered.

During the hearings, several current and former employees at the college — which is located in the Lennoxville borough of Sherbrooke, Que., said the working environment there makes it difficult to perform their jobs and has affected their physical and mental health.

"It's the worst working environment I have ever seen in my career of over 30 years," testified Cindy Rivett, the manager of auxiliary services at the college.

"The minute you question something, you know your job is in jeopardy."

Catherine Gingras broke down sobbing while describing the toxic work environment and her unease in testifying. She was the Lennoxville campus's human resources manager at the time of her testimony.

"It's intimidating," she told the tribunal.

"I love my job but with everything that I have said, how could you expect me to stay employed at the college now?"

Difficulty escalating complaints

Champlain College Lennoxville is one of three campuses under Champlain Regional College.

CBC News examined the college administration's organizational charts. Excluding faculty, of the 36 people listed as working in administration in Lennoxville as of July 2020, only 20 remained as of September. Out of those 20 employees, seven are on leave.

Gingras is no longer listed as an employee on that chart.

CBC has also obtained thousands of pages of documents through an access-to-information request. They were submitted over the course of the proceedings, containing allegations against Beattie and her husband Daniel Poitras. Poitras is also the co-ordinator of administrative services, which includes managing campus finances.

The four people who testified against Beattie told the tribunal Poitras was vague and confusing when asked about the college's budget or finances.

They said those who pressed Poitras for information were met with hostility, and could even become targets of his wife's antagonism — making it difficult to escalate complaints.

"This is the problem," said Rivett. "Everything reports back to Nancy and nothing ever happens because she's so determined to protect Daniel."

Champlain Regional College has a policy against nepotism which applies to spouses. It says a staff member must "withdraw from the decision-making process" when managing staff in a situation that could constitute a conflict of interest. Disregarding the college's policy is supposed to result in "disciplinary action."

'I wanted to hide under the table'

Jennifer Coley-Gomez testified that there were instances where she was humiliated at work. She is the dean of student services and is currently on leave.

As the plaintiff in the labour tribunal case against Beattie, she testified that she had an altercation with Poitras during a management team meeting on Nov. 4, 2020. Coley-Gomez said she asked Poitras questions about the budget that Beattie presented. She said she was "shocked" by his angry reaction.

"He raised his voice and was red in the face," Coley-Gomez told the tribunal.

"I wanted to hide under the table. Really, I was ashamed."

Coley-Gomez alleges Beattie began to single her out after the incident with Poitras – dismissing her in meetings, appropriating Coley-Gomez's ideas, removing her from committees, withholding information and ignoring her calls and emails.

Coley-Gomez filed a complaint with Quebec's workplace health and safety board, known by the French acronym CNESST. In September 2021, it found Coley-Gomez's allegations had been corroborated, and that the allegations were "vexatious and repetitive" and should go before the tribunal. CBC obtained the report through the access-to-information request submitted to the tribunal.

'I would have liked to know if there was a problem'

Beattie argued most of Coley-Gomez's complaints could either be explained or were simply not true.

Testifying at the hearings earlier this month, Beattie said she remembered the events of Nov. 4, 2020 differently, saying the conversation between Poitras and Coley-Gomez was heated on both sides. The Lennoxville campus's director said she told Poitras to consider taking some "financial communication" classes.

Beattie said the only issue employees brought to her attention regarding Poitras was about his tardiness and that she "would have liked to know if there was a problem."

She also said she is an approachable person and that staff could have come to her.

"I try to be diplomatic with my employees and to approach them with kindness," she said.

"It's always difficult to deal with people's perceptions. We can't read people's minds but we can work on real problems."

Pierre Roy, a data processing technician at the Lennoxville campus who is not on the management team, testified on Beattie's behalf. He said he never noticed a problem with her management style.

"With me, it was always respectful. We always conversed in a friendly way without any problems," said Roy.

Beattie 'uneasy' when she first became director

Beattie also testified in February.

During that testimony, she said that she herself felt uncomfortable with the situation involving Poitras when she first assumed the role of interim director in 2015. She said she was told it was supposed to be temporary.

At the time of Beattie's appointment, Poitras already held the position of finance manager and the two were in a relationship.

"I saw a conflict of interest that was very clear to me," she testified. "I was a little uneasy about taking over."

Poitras currently reports to Yves Rainville, Champlain Regional College's interim director general, who oversees three campuses including the one in Lennoxville.

CBC reached out to Beattie multiple times with a request for comment but have not heard back. Poitras has also not responded to a request for comment.

Rainville issued a written statement by email through a public relations firm. He said the college is committed to "the success of our students" and won't comment on the case being addressed in the tribunal "out of respect for those involved."

'Everybody felt powerless'

Gingras, the campus's former human resources manager, testified that she received many complaints from people who felt there was nepotism and passed them on to the director of human resources and corporate affairs for Champlain Regional College at the time, Line Larivière.

"Several times, [Larivière] said 'I talked to Nancy and she told me, according to her, everything is going well,'" said Gingras.

Yotam Baum, the associate dean of faculty and academic affairs who is also currently on leave, told the tribunal that he brought up his concerns about Beattie to human resources.

"I felt that Daniel [Poitras] would often be defended by Nancy on a regular basis even when doing wrong things, when making mistakes, when not doing his job properly. It was very difficult to work in such an environment where somebody was so protected," said Baum.

"Other employees had come and seen me as well, be it faculty members or other employees at the college who were constantly concerned about this … Everybody felt powerless about it."

Board didn't see evaluations before renewing Beattie's mandate

The hearings at the tribunal are being held more than a year after Beattie's mandate was renewed in April 2022.

Last January, Odette Côté, Rainville's predecessor, lost her job as Champlain Regional College's director general after a report from the Education Ministry said she had failed to address harassment allegations and conflict within her organization.

A June 2022 redacted report from the ministry's investigations unit said Côté's inaction "contributed to a deteriorating work climate within the Lennoxville administration."

It also says that the college's board of governors was not presented with any documents or evaluations when it renewed Beattie's mandate — a process that could lead to "unenlightened decision making."

The Education Ministry has launched an investigation into the management and finances at Champlain College Lennoxville and the regional college as a whole, according to a letter that was sent to the Lennoxville campus's governing board last month and obtained by CBC.

The college is holding a board of governors meeting that is open to the public on Friday at 6 p.m. at the Lennoxville campus.

If you have more information about this story, you can reach out by sending an email to rachel.watts@cbc.ca

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Watts

CBC journalist

Rachel Watts is a journalist with CBC News in Quebec City. Originally from Montreal, she enjoys covering stories in the province of Quebec. You can reach her at rachel.watts@cbc.ca.

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