Ontario government sparks concerns with partisan appointments to Trillium Foundation board

Ontario government sparks concerns with partisan appointments to Trillium Foundation board

The provincial government has revoked the appointments of several accomplished and experienced members of the Ontario Trillium Foundation board and is in the process of appointing three new members who have close connections with the Progressive Conservative Party.

Sources with knowledge of the board shakeup have told QP Briefing it has sparked concerns: about the partisan nature of the appointments, about the nature of the dismissal of the well-regarded board members, and about the future of the Trillium Foundation.

The Trillium Foundation awards about $100 million in provincial grant money annually. Recommendations on granting are made by regional teams, with the final decisions made by the board. The board members are unpaid volunteers.

For example, last month the government announced Trillium grants of $719,100 for 360°kids, which “provides a safe bed for the night to more than 140 York Region youth,” and $132,500 to the Alzheimer Society of York Region, to fund vehicles to transport people with dementia to day programs.

At a cabinet meeting on February 28, the government revoked the appointments of four members: Susan Scotti, executive vice president of the Business Council of Canada, Andrea Wood, chief legal officer at Telus, Abdullah Snobar, executive director of the DMZ tech accelerator at Ryerson University, and Crista Renner, a mediator and college lecturer.

At the same meeting, cabinet appointed two new board members, both of whom ran as Progressive Conservative candidates in the last election but were unsuccessful: Gary Bennett, a former mayor of Kingston, and Mary Henein Thorn, who has worked in Conservative constituency offices in Kitchener and is currently seeking the federal Conservative nomination for Kitchener Centre.

Meanwhile, a transcript of the legislature’s standing committee on government agencies shows Michael Diamond — who managed Doug Ford’s successful PC leadership campaign and directed the party’s 2018 election campaign, and is also a registered lobbyist — was also approved for the board on March 5.

Renner, who was dismissed from the board, said members were informed there would be changes as the government moved to name new appointees and then was told by a letter she had been removed, effective immediately.

She was never told of any issue with her work — she’s served in a voluntary capacity for the Trillium Foundation for a decade — and the only rationale she was given was the government’s desire to appoint new members.

Renner told QP Briefing she has concerns about changes.

She said what makes the Ontario Trillium Foundation successful is the diversity of the board members and their experiences, as well as their on-the-ground knowledge of the areas they live in, which allows them to make decisions that serve the greatest needs in their communities, making the greatest impact.

“It was always very clear that the granting was not based on political interest,” she said.

The new government cut $15 million from the Trillium Foundation’s base funding this year.

Renner said she’s concerned that the board shake-up mean more changes may be coming that might negatively impact the good work the foundation does.

“My concern is there are a lot of things working,” she said. “Trillium is looked upon as a very high-functioning approach to granting and investing in communities and I just want to make sure that we continue down that path and we don’t try to fix or change something that is really doing the work it was intended to do.”

Lastly, she said she’s also concerned about the abrupt nature of the board members dismissals, calling it “demoralizing.”

“It speaks to a lack of respect for volunteer time,” she said.

“Volunteerism is so important and I hope the government acknowledges that and recognizes that as it moves forward.”

QP Briefing spoke with other sources familiar with the board changes who echoed Renner’s concerns.

Meanwhile, an NDP MPP made his concerns about partisanship concerning one of the board appointments loud and clear at Queen’s Park.

Taras Natyshak sits on the Government Agencies committee at Queen’s Park and questioned Diamond at length about his ties to the PC party, calling it a “disturbing trend” in recent government appointments.

“Mr. Diamond, you’re a partisan; right?” he said, according to the committee transcript. “It’s fair to say that you’re pretty heavily involved with the party. In a democratic society, it’s your right to do so. In your partisan capacity or through your ideological belief system, would you think it’s appropriate for a government to nominate, pretty exclusively, partisan appointments through this process? Do you think they’re being selective in who they nominate and in who they choose and put into these positions?”

In response, Diamond said he wasn’t aware of the other appointees, adding, “No, I think that the prerogative of the government is to appoint people who they think can work towards delivering results for the people of Ontario.”

Natyshak went on to criticize what he described as a “bonanza of appointments for partisans and for those who are connected to the Premier’s office,” before asking Diamond how he came to apply for the position. Diamond replied that a staffer in the minister’s office raised the idea with him at a social event.

Asked if he felt he was given preference because of his work for his party, Diamond replied, “I believe that whoever reviewed and vetted these CVs saw that I applied and can contribute in a valuable way in this voluntary capacity.”

Diamond also indicated he had no issue with the government’s decision to cut $15 million from the foundation’s budget this year, calling it “a fact of reality.”

“It’s no surprise to anyone who has observed Ontario for the last 15 years that hard decisions are required right now,” he said.

QP Briefing has reached out to Diamond and Henein Thorn for comment and will update this story with any reply.

Bennett, when reached for comment, spoke with enthusiasm about his new appointment, and said he wants to ensure the money is invested well, and to ensure that the integrity of the fund and amount of provincial money invested in it continues.

“I’m not sure if having a membership in a political party has a significant bearing on it,” he said. “I’m sure if you looked at most appointees they all at some point in time had an affiliation at one time or another.”

The Trillium Foundation falls under the purview of the minister of tourism, culture and sport. According to Michael Tibollo’s office, his ministry currently has the second highest number of public appointments.

“We are hard at work, taking the necessary steps to ensure that these vacant positions are filled in a timely manner, and with the most qualified candidates,” said press secretary Brett Weltman in an email to QP Briefing. “We believe the candidates who our Ministry has appointed to the Ontario Trillium Foundation are the best-positioned and most-qualified to ensure value for money and respect for taxpayer dollars.”

Editor's note: This story was updated after its initial publication to add that Henein Thorn is currently seeking a Conservative nomination.

Jessica Smith Cross

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