WN Councilor Anne Tessier ousted after social media comment
The chairmanship of the Au Château board of directors has seemed like a game of musical chairs lately, with three changes in as many months and controversy spilling over onto West Nipissing town council, which has four representatives on the board.
On January 18, the brand new board met for the first time and named Ronald Demers, a provincial appointee to the board, as chair. During that first meeting, the board considered a motion to reverse the COVID-19 vaccination requirement for essential caregivers. While all members expressed agreement with the need to revisit the policy, three wanted to reverse it right away and three wanted the subject brought back to the next meeting with recommendations from staff on implementing changes.
What followed was a public lambasting of those who voted to wait, namely town appointees Kathleen Thorne Rochon and Jamie Restoule, and chair Demers who caused the tie vote which defeated the motion. Voting in favour of immediate change were town appointees Anne Tessier, who brought the motion, and Fernand Pellerin along with provincial appointee Catherine Neddow. People opposing the vaccine mandate protested outside the long-term care facility and some posted scathing videos and comments on social media, particularly against Thorne Rochon and Demers as well as Au Château director Jacques Dupuis.
The board called a special meeting just 9 days later, January 27, and voted to repeal the vaccination requirement not only for essential caregivers but for all visitors to Au Château. Demers admitted that he had received many calls and the board was under pressure, though stopped short of saying they had capitulated to protestors. The lone vote against the motion was that of Thorne Rochon, who expressed frustration at rushing to a decision in a way that she described as “reactionary.”
The meeting also dealt with the sudden departure of Jacques Dupuis, who had taken a “medical leave for an undetermined period of time”, appointing Director of Care Cindy Brouillette as acting administrator in the interim. A release was issued to explain the policy change and indicated that it was partly “addressing the harassment that the employees have been subjected to, leading to security concerns,” with Brouillette revealing that some employees felt unsafe.
However, things did not settle down after the change in policy, as some continued to lobby for an end to the vaccination mandate for all staff at the home as well. Dupuis returned to work only to find much the same climate and soon, Demers announced he was stepping down as chair for “personal reasons.” Demers remains on the board as a provincial appointee, and while he would not elaborate further on his decision to renounce the chairmanship, he did forward a screen shot of an online threat made against him. The Tribune obtained other screen shots of threats published under the name Dave Lavoie, one stating “walk into timmies around 7 a.m. That’s the time Ron Demers goes for morning coffee,” and another stating “Think I’ll go to timmies around 7 am, there’s a certain someone who needs a good slap upside the head,” among other similar posts. Demers, who is not on social media, says others had made him aware of the messages and he reported them to police, who opened a file on the matter. The Ontario Provincial Police did not respond to the Tribune’s inquiry on this file by press time.
With Demers’ resignation, the March 15 meeting of the board began with a new election. Catherine Neddow nominated Anne Tessier for the position, and was seconded by Fernand Pellerin. Thorne Rochon nominated Jamie Restoule, however there was no seconder for that motion. This led to the unanimous approval of Tessier as chair. However, her chairmanship would be short-lived. At the April 4 meeting of West Nipissing Council, Thorne Rochon exercised her authority as mayor to shuffle her committee appointments, and she removed both Tessier and herself from the Au Château board, replacing them with councilors Daniel Gagné and Jérôme Courchesne. The move leaves the Au Château board without a chair once again.
Board shuffle ruffles feathers
With the mayor’s proposed board shuffle included in public documentation posted ahead of the April 4th council meeting, many were aware of the planned move and accused Thorne Rochon of abusing her power to silence dissent. Approximately 20 people attended the meeting to show support for Tessier. Noting the presence of people interested in the committee shuffle, council moved that item to the first portion of the agenda.
The mayor explained that two new boards had been created, which meant council members had to be reassigned to fill the new positions. As mover of the proposed shuffle, she stepped away as chair and allowed deputy mayor Jamie Restoule to preside over discussions.
Tessier, who attended the meeting from home via Zoom, objected to being removed from the Au Château board, saying “I am capable and willing to act in the best interest of Au Château and of its residents.” She said she felt the need to continue advocating for caregivers and staff who had complained to her regarding quality of care, complaints she said “all fell on deaf ears.” Tessier said many “negative experiences” were communicated to her, such as residents being left in soiled diapers, leading her to believe there were violations to the Long Term Care Act. “I wish to remain on the board so we can work together to discuss how we can resolve to make sure that the plan of care is followed based on the Act,” she concluded.
Councilor Fern Pellerin supported her, saying “Mrs. Tessier does a hell of a job… she puts in a lot of hours and she’s doing it for the right reasons.”
Thorne Rochon explained her reasoning, saying Tessier had jeopardized the relationship with Au Château’s administration through an online comment. “I did recommend that Councilor Tessier be removed from the board of the Château and I did so because there have been some concerns in regards to the use of social media and to the responsibilities of being a board member and representing an organization,” she stated. “I received 3 or 4 text messages with screen shots from Facebook that contained a comment by Ms. Tessier on a post that was critical of the management and operation of the facility. Unfortunately, the administrator of the Chateau was also made aware of this post and the attacks that were made on him and condoned by Madame Tessier in her post is going to have an impact on the relationship that we are able to develop with our partner.”
She described Au Château as a very valuable asset to the community in terms of infrastructure and employment, with an annual budget of $17 million including $13 million in wages and benefits. Before she could continue, there was audible agitation in the room and an outburst from an audience member telling the mayor “You’re a bully!” Thorne Rochon persisted over the noise, insisting that council members had a duty to uphold the integrity of the corporation. “That is why I have made the recommendation to have councilor Tessier sit on alternate boards where the conduct won’t impact the relationship that we have with our stakeholders,” she concluded.
Restoule reminded the audience that they were observers only and asked them not to interrupt, adding that they were there to discuss only the composition of the board, not activities that go on at Au Château, which falls under the purview of that organization’s own board as well as the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care. This angered an audience member who asked “So when are you going to talk about that?… The same as before. There is no freedom of speech in West Nipissing.”
Tessier asked to have the Facebook comment in question read out loud. The mayor obliged: “It was shared on your council Facebook profile page, with information about (…) the flu policy. There is a series of comments that are derogatory toward administration and other board members, and the comment that you made was “yes” in agreement I’m assuming with the comments above, and “I wish there was a magic wand. I am meeting with Mr. Dupuis… on Friday about my role as chair. Hopefully I can show him my power over his position.”
The comment was on a thread criticizing the Au Château’s administration and board for their flu outbreak policy, with the aforementioned Dave Lavoie commenting just before Tessier that “Mayor Rochon and Ron Demers needs [sic] to be punished for being unethical, racist and for bullying.”
Tessier did seem to express regret about posting her comment, which she had since deleted. “That’s the only comment. I didn’t agree with [others] on that post and that comment was deleted afterwards,” she said.
Councilor Kris Rivard appreciated the contrition but said “the comment is definitely hurtful towards a relationship with such a valuable community partner,” adding that all members “must follow our social media policy to remain professional.”
Councilor Roch St-Louis agreed. “As council members, we are not here to overpower anybody of the community… We sit on boards, we participate on boards, we are not above anybody else on those boards,” he stated.
Restoule felt the damage was done once the comments were posted online. “You can delete them but they’re still there,” he said, adding that many saw the comments and “they aren’t conducive to a good relationship with the administration of Au Chateau.” He added that “we need to fix the relationship there” and “if we don’t have the trust and the relationship between the board and the administration, it’s not going to move forward the way that everyone wants it to move forward.”
Restoule also reminded that everyone around the table had endorsed the town’s social media policy. “I’ve sat on boards for 11 years and I’ve never seen this kind of action before. (…) It was very disappointing to see that kind of comment being made on public social media from a representative from council on one of our largest community partners.”
Pellerin defended Tessier, saying “It’s not the end of the world. She made a mistake, we’re all new at this.” He felt her advocacy work was worthwhile. “We still represent the public… on the Au Château board, we represent the people living at Au Château. I think that’s what she’s working hard to do.”
Tessier requested a recorded vote and in the end, only she and Pellerin voted against the motion, with the majority adopting the board shuffle. The audience once again showed its displeasure, with one person asking “That means, when the mayor screws up, we’ll throw the mayor underneath the bus too, right?” adding the decision “might bite you in the ass” later.
In the days following the decision, supporters of Tessier put out a petition asking that she be reinstated to the board, and are currently gathering signatures to present to town council.
Au Château director responds, new chair to be elected April 26
The next Au Château board meeting is scheduled for April 26 and director Jacques Dupuis says there are no plans, thus far, to call a special meeting before that time to elect a new chair. When asked if members might feel reticent to take on the position in the current climate, he said he felt confident there were “good candidates there that will be up to taking on this responsibility.”