What happened to the NWT’s Status of Women Council?
The Status of Women Council, created by the NWT government in 1990, has a mandate to advocate on behalf of women and provide feedback on policies and legislation.
The organization, which considers itself a not-for-profit, has produced research on issues affecting women and runs awareness campaigns, community programming and events.
But in September 2022, these activities slowed considerably. According to three former employees with knowledge of the situation, by that point every full-time staff member had either been fired or quit. The executive director at the time, Louise Elder, also stepped down between August and October 2022.
By May 2023, a new executive director had yet to start work.
While several former employees offered clues as to what had changed, one of the most serious allegations brought forward concerns a breach of ethics in a report on domestic violence produced by the organization.
‘Is this legal?’
In 2018, two researchers working for the Status of Women Council began an ambitious project – following up on a groundbreaking and incisive study on intimate partner violence in the Northwest Territories led by Dr Mary Hampton.
That initial report, published in 2017, surveyed front-line workers providing services to women experiencing intimate partner violence. It identified gaps and issues that were preventing more effective treatment. However, the two researchers hoping to build on that report felt it was missing valuable input from those at the heart of the issue: the women themselves.
“In that paper, she had talked to service providers, and the theme articulated by front-line workers was, ‘our hands are tied,'” said one of the two researchers, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.
“So the name of our project was going to be Untying Our Hands.”
By talking directly with women affected by violence, the two researchers working on Untying Our Hands hoped to understand how the territory could better protect victims. Over the next year, they interviewed a number of women from communities across the Northwest Territories and, with their guidance, put together a series of concrete, actionable improvements to the system.
“There were a lot of really good, solid suggestions that came from conversations with women that were using the services,” said the researcher.
But given the sensitivity of the area they were working in, many steps had to be taken to ensure the safety and anonymity of those they interviewed. They were required to follow strict guidelines from the Aurora Research Council as a condition of their research licence. Participants had to be coded to protect anonymity, and only the two researchers approved under the licence could have access to data, transcripts and records.
The women “went out on a limb to talk to us,” said the researcher. “That’s not an easy thing to do. They trusted us with their safety, with their very valuable suggestions.”
The result of those contributions was a set of 40 to 50 recommendations that showed how vulnerable women could be better served by policy makers, front-line service workers, healthcare providers and RCMP.
The researchers promised the women involved that they would be able to review the results before the report was published.
“We brought them the final version and said, you know, ‘Are you OK with this? Are you comfortable with us using this quote of yours?’ And the response we got was so warm,” the researcher said. “They felt that they had been heard. They agreed with the recommendations.”
But when one of the researchers returned to work in March 2020, they were handed a letter of termination, which they at first interpreted as a joke.
“I went into my office and my computer had been locked. I couldn’t get in. I saw that the filing cabinet was open and papers had been taken out. I wish now somebody had been with me because you’re in shock, right?
“I have all this precious information under lock and key, which was a requirement of us keeping all of our research confidential. I should have said, ‘Is this legal?’”
The researcher was asked to show everything they had been working on. Panicked and flustered, they resorted to hiding particularly sensitive documents in a gap between their desk and a nearby credenza.
“I get out of the office and get home and I’m thinking, ‘What the hell just happened?’ I have never – and I’m a health professional, by the way – I have never, in all my years living and working here, been treated like that.”
Despite years of experience working with communities and producing research with institutions such as McGill and the University of Alberta, the researcher says they were told their work contained such serious issues that not only were they going to be fired, but the report would need to be rewritten.
‘Unacceptable risk of additional harm’
The revised version of the report was published in July 2020.
When the researchers read the public version, they were shocked. Confidential details about the women they had worked with had been added to the report.
Internal documents obtained by Cabin Radio through an access to information request show their reactions at the time of the release.
Cabin Radio is not disclosing the exact nature of how the women were identifiable in case outdated versions of the report remain in circulation. In an October conversation with Cabin Radio, the former researcher explained just how critical confidentiality is for women experiencing intimate partner violence.
“In small communities, it doesn’t take much for somebody to put two and two together. And an abusive partner will go to any lengths to find someone,” they said.
While representatives from the Aurora Research Council refused to comment for this report, emails accessed by Cabin Radio show several members of the organization expressed concern that the women involved could be in danger as a result of the material that was published.
A letter addressed to the Status of Women Council and signed by Alexandra Hook, the chair of Aurora College’s research ethics committee (REC), states: “In approving the ethics protocol, the REC agreed that the risk of participation could only be justified if every possible effort was made to conceal the research participation.
“The participants were told, as part of the consent process, that [redacted] would not be named. By including that information in the acknowledgements, the researcher has deviated from promises made to the participants and from the informed consent they agreed to.
“The final report in its current form imposes an unacceptable risk of additional harm to highly vulnerable participants.”
The researcher said they were also devastated to see that the findings published in the revised report deviated significantly from their own conclusions.
Three people employed at the Status of Women Council at the time said they understood that a number of recommendations were revised or left out, data was manipulated, and any mention of the police that could be interpreted as negative was removed from the report before its eventual publication.
“It was a total misinterpretation of our research findings,” the researcher said.
“Some of it was just made up entirely. Big parts were missing. It was turned into a report that gave the impression that ‘it’s a hard job, but we’re doing the best we can’ – we’re not. We can do way better, and it’s not that hard. You just have to listen to the people using the services. The women … were talking about the services and why they weren’t accessing them, barriers to the services. And they offered really good insights, really good, doable fixes.
“It wasn’t trashing the RCMP, it was just explaining: there are the things that make us feel unsafe. These are the things that could be done differently. Many times, it wouldn’t cost anything or be very hard to implement, but would have been a little ah-ha moment for service providers.
“They were such great recommendations. So it was just heartbreaking to see that.”
The researcher said they heard negative feedback from colleagues and others in the research community over the quality of the work, which affected their reputation.
While Cabin Radio was unable to speak with any of the women involved in the making of the report, documents produced through the access to information request suggest that at least one participant wrote that she felt ‘betrayed’ by what had been published in the revised report.
During the weeks after the revised report’s publication, documents collected by Cabin Radio reveal a flurry of emails between the organization and Aurora Research Council’s research ethics office.
What were the consequences?
By the end of July, ARI had determined that the published version of the report violated the terms of the research licence the institute had issued and “determined that a credible risk of harm” existed.
That conclusion also placed the report in violation of the Tri-Council Policy Statement, the national ethics standard for research involving humans. The policy statement is a joint agreement of Canada’s three federal research agencies and compliance is a condition of all federal research funding.
A number of women involved in the study were Indigenous. Decades of questionable ethics around research in Indigenous communities have left a lasting legacy of distrust.
Darren Thomas, an associate professor of Indigenous studies and vice-president of Wilfrid Laurier University’s Indigenous Initiatives program, has said the word “research” itself is loaded with history for many Indigenous people.
“When you talk to many communities who have been victimized by poor research, research is a swear word,” Thomas told Cabin Radio in an interview for a separate report in March last year.
As part of that conversation, Thomas pointed to the Tri-Council Policy Statement in particular as a critical measure to protect Indigenous participants in research studies. But while non-compliance with the Tri-Council Policy can cause an organization to lose its funding or reputation, the policy doesn’t have legal teeth. Instead, it refers researchers to their local regulations.
In the Northwest Territories, that would be the Scientists Act. Violations of the act, according to section seven, are punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or imprisonment for a term of up to six months.
There is no suggestion that any action was taken regarding the Status of Women Council’s publication of the revised report.
Asked why that might be, one former employee of the council told Cabin Radio: “If it was institutional research, it would be a problem. But it’s considered social research, because it was done by a private industry. And their rules are a bit looser, which is why I think she got away with it.”
The employee was referring to the council’s executive director at the time, Louise Elder.
Elder played a central role in publication of the revised report, according to five former employees with whom Cabin Radio spoke.
While the Status of Women Council is a government agency, Elder’s name was redacted from all material submitted to Cabin Radio as part of its access to information request, so the extent to which she took responsibility for errors in the report after its publication is difficult to ascertain.
Elder declined multiple requests for comment.
A non-compliance report form completed by an ARI employee, included among the access to information documents, appears to confirm that the Status of Women Council may have received a lighter punishment than a university in a similar situation.
“Given the limited authority of the REC to regulate research in a non-academic setting (in this case, a government agency), the following will focus on actions that can be taken to reduce harm to participants and fall directly under the purview of the REC,” the non-compliance document states.
So who provides oversight over the Status of Women Council?
This particular research project received federal funding through Women and Gender Equality Canada (WAGE). When asked about if the report had violated the terms of its funding agreement in May 2023, the department said this was the first they had heard of the incident.
“WAGE had no knowledge of any breach of research ethics related to the project prior to this inquiry,” said Lauryn Kronick, a WAGE representative. “The department acknowledges the concerns and questions raised, and will work closely with SWCNWT to ensure similar incidents do not reoccur in future.”
The NWT government provides the council’s core funding. The council has a board that operates independently of the GNWT and directs the agency’s activities and efforts to achieve its mission and vision. Those board members are selected by a member of the territory’s cabinet, Caroline Wawzonek.
“As the minister responsible for the status of women, it is my duty to appoint board members to the Status of Women Council to represent the women of the Northwest Territories and their interests,” confirmed Wawzonek.
Was she aware of everything that happened in 2020? Did she get involved?
“I am aware of concerns raised about a research report … that was produced by the Status of Women Council in 2020 and I have been assured by the Aurora Research Institute that concerns with the research and report have been resolved,” Wawzonek stated.
Despite multiple requests for comment, no current or former members of the board, including acting president Rita Arey, agreed to speak on the record.
At least one former employee felt the board’s lack of oversight may have contributed to issues with the report, even before it was rewritten.
“Sometimes [the researchers] were supposed to have run decisions by the board, but the board didn’t show up and they went ahead anyway,” the former employee said.
“They over-commiserated with some of the people they were meeting with, which you’re not supposed to do. But when there’s no one supervising the research, you can’t blame the research team … the only input happened when Louise didn’t like the output.”
What the future holds for the Status of Women Council is unclear.
The organization received almost $800,000 from the federal and territorial governments in 2022. For some of that time, there appears to have been nobody working for the council and no executive director. (Late on Wednesday, the NWT government said a new executive director had been hired but had yet to start work.)
Will funding for the organization be put on hold while virtually no one is putting its mandate into practice?
According to the minister, not necessarily.
“I do not anticipate that the search for a new executive director will have any impact on future funding decisions for the Status of Women Council,” Wawzonek stated.
To at least one former employee, that doesn’t sit right.
“Women in the North are not being served right now,” they said.
“I think the taxpayer in the North is being taken advantage of, because of all that money thrown into an organization that hasn’t done anything in months.”
“I just feel like we betrayed those women,” said the former researcher.
“They put their trust in us and we broke that. We may not have been the ones that rewrote that report, but we promised to keep the information safe and to portray everything fairly and honestly.
“When we gave those women [the original report documents], they read them and the response was so warm. It was: ‘Someone is acknowledging that this isn’t just a bad dream. We’ve been heard and they’re going to do something about it.’
“We never got to go back and tell them we were sorry.”