MARCH 6, 2015. IT’S A DATE that employees of the Ontario Provincial Police Association (OPPA) will never forget.
The RCMP arrived at the Ontario Provincial Police’s union office in Barrie—home of approximately 30 OPPA staff—armed with a search warrant to investigate the union’s finances.
A few days later, the RCMP revealed allegations of theft, fraud, breach of trust, and laundering the proceeds of crime against three of the agency’s top officials—the president, vice-president, and chief administrative officer.
Nineteen months later, the trio was formally charged, along with one outside lawyer and a businessman.
OPPA staff were shaken. Some knew what was going on—in fact, four staff members were the whistle-blowers whose actions launched the investigation.
For others, the events were shocking, but made seemingly inexplicable events in the prior six months suddenly make sense.
The management in the building had been changing people’s roles and working conditions, arbitrarily it seemed, according to Jillian Ruddock, executive officer assistant who assists the OPPA’s labour relations team.
“I sensed that there was something going on, for about six months,” says Lorrie Norwood, who works as a legal assistant, event planner, and assistant to the training manager for OPPA. “I didn’t know what, but I felt almost a sense of relief when it all went down, because there was so much tension and upset around here.
“How it was affecting everybody was not healthy. For the people who worked directly with those arrested, I can’t even imagine. You put your trust in these people.”
WITH THE EXECUTIVE SHAKEN UP and the workplace in turmoil, Michael Briscoe was appointed as acting CAO. The first thing he did was reverse the changes that had been made in the previous months. He reinstated staff to their old positions, brought back compressed work weeks, and created stability. He then undertook several reviews to ensure that staff were being treated fairly and compensated properly, and worked to ensure that they had access to counsellors so they could talk out what had taken place.
Staff breathed a sigh of relief. But their journey was far from over.
“We got together as a group and realized that we had no job security,” says Jillian. “Going through that made us realize, wow—we have nothing to protect us. We just went through this horrible event for months and we had nothing to fall back on. We had to abide by what they [former management] were saying.”
Staff felt secure under their new CAO, but decided to unionize to protect themselves from future management who could potentially create turmoil again. They called CLAC and met with J. D. Alkema, CLAC Mississauga regional director, in early April 2016. By mid-July, they had voted to unionize.
“When the admin staff unionized, I think that created a level of security for them and for myself as well,” says Michael, now appointed CAO permanently. “In the event that I do retire, there’s that level of protection for them. A healthy balance of power is a good thing for both the organization and the employees.”
For four years, staff have been healing from the shock and distrust that former OPPA management created.
“I think I was a little naive to think that once we got past the first year, people would start to get in more of a comfort groove and we’d get back into line again,” says Michael.
The reality is, while relationships are being repaired, more healing still needs to take place, particularly because the case against the removed executive has yet to come to trial.
“It’s all hanging over your head,” says Liana Maltby, a CLAC steward who is the executive assistant to the OPPA president. “We just want it to be done, so we can move on.”
The four whistle-blowers and the OPPA are also facing a multimillion dollar lawsuit by the ousted executives for defamation of character.
ON TOP OF HEALING FROM the crisis within their team, the OPPA staff are dealing with a crisis within their membership.
The Ontario Provincial Police force is facing a mental health emergency. Thirteen officers have taken their own lives since 2012. The number of officers in need of help is continually increasing, and the incidence of posttraumatic stress injury (PTSI) is rising.
The OPP has commissioned reports in the past, but has done little to implement their suggested findings to address officers’ mental health. Because of this, they have recently been pilloried in the press, including in CBC’s Fifth Estate documentary, “Officer Down,” released in early 2019.
The OPPA staff bear a heavy load in trying to support these officers and their families. They are a small team—only 30 members—serving a membership of 10,000. Their jobs range from administering benefits to helping with grievances to planning training events. But at times, they find themselves acting as counsellors to grieving families and officers in distress.
“Sometimes our members are just calling and hoping that whoever answers the phone can listen to them and wants to listen,” says Jillian. “Our eyes have been opened to the systemic issues of mental health in the force, and we are all seeking to build on our expertise to respond to the needs of our members.”
Michael Briscoe agrees. “I think the biggest challenges are the volume of work and the changing landscape with mental health issues. The OPP themselves have gone through so many changes as well, and haven’t always treated our members appropriately, and we see that up close and personal through human rights complaints. With the volume of mental health issues, it takes a toll on the care providers.”
IN ADDITION TO THE RISING mental health concerns of members, grievances have shot up. Where OPPA staff used to work on 5 to 10 grievances per year, they’re now dealing with over 100.
“The workload is demanding,” says Jillian. “Mental health issues are at an ultimate high right now and this is challenging to deal with.”
To mitigate the pressures, Michael and his team are working on a series of initiatives, starting with a pilot project to hire additional staff members to ease the workload.
The team also has worked together to handle grievances more efficiently and to resolve issues before they become grievances.
“We created a grievance pilot project,” says Michael. “I sat down one on one with the deputy commissioner, and we worked through a lot of things and applied a level of reasonableness to resolve some of these grievances. We cleared up half of them.
“Phase two will be the strategic piece for building relationships between the employer and us and then having more of a grievance management system. It will be entrenched in the OPP collective agreement.”
OPP management also has finally started to address the mental health needs of officers. It’s something that the public, the officers, and the union have been calling on for years. Staff are cautiously hopeful that the OPP management is listening.
“I think our OPPA board president does a really good job with the mental health piece,” says Michael. “He made an announcement with the minister of community safety and correctional services about the joint mental health initiative that we will own and the employer will fund. It provides almost unlimited supports to our members with mental health issues, so it will be a one-stop shopping experience with various specialists. It’s new and very cutting edge.”
The OPP also recently got a new commissioner, Thomas Carrique, and the OPPA hopes he will be supportive of mental health initiatives.
Some staff have received suicide prevention training in the past, including Lorrie.
“I’ve dealt with three members who were potentially suicidal. I was able to use my training and help them out, and everything’s well with them.”
OPPA staff and stewards are advocating for increased access to training and to mental health tools—not only so they can help their members, but so that they can cope when they are impacted by the mental illness or death of a member. They hope that the number of people who receive the training will increase, as well as the number of training options, including training such as mental health first aid, which CLAC has recently begun offering.
They have also met with management to discuss what to do for staff when a member dies by suicide. One suggestion has been to check in with impacted staff not only immediately after the event, but later on as well.
“I think it’s important to follow up down the line, not just right when things happen,” says Lorrie. “Maybe two weeks, a month later to see how they’re doing, because sometimes PTSI might not kick in for a little while.”
WITH A NEW OPP COMMISSIONER, a president who is committed to mental health, a dedicated CAO, and CLAC at their side, the staff of the OPPA are cautiously optimistic that things will get better—both for themselves and for the members they represent.
“OPPA staff are experts in what they do,” says Michael. “We may close the doors at the end of the day at five o’clock, but we figuratively take our members home with us. We think about them and how we can improve things for them. From legal to administrative to finance to education to labour relations, these are very dedicated people.”
Healing still needs to take place, and the new mental health initiatives are still in the planning phases. But together, the OPPA staff are working hard to strengthen their team so that they can better serve their members—the men and women who risk their wellbeing, both mental and physical, every day do to serve and protect our communities.
CLAC Calls Back
The OPPA staff members’ main challenge in unionizing—finding a union that would call them back. Liana, Jillian, and Lorrie were the main drivers behind organizing.
“We had quite a bit of trouble getting in touch with unions,” says Jillian. “We called a bunch and no one would get back to us, and we’re thinking nobody wants us. I thought of CLAC—my husband works for a CLAC contractor—so I called J. D. Alkema [CLAC Mississauga regional director], and he was more than willing to talk. He was so accommodating. After we met the first time as a group with him, we realized that what CLAC represents fits so well with what we were looking for.”
“Some of the staff were a little hesitant at the beginning,” says Lorrie. “But as soon as they found out we weren’t looking to strong arm anything, but wanted everything we had to be protected, our coworkers were very understanding and very supportive.”
About the OPPA
The Ontario Provincial Police Association (OPPA) is the union that represents approximately 10,000 uniformed and civilian officers of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP). The OPP is one of the largest police forces in North America and provides services to over 300 communities in Ontario.
- The OPPA is overseen by a board of directors, who are elected for fixed terms by the membership. There are no term limits.
- The OPPA’s chief administrative officer (CAO) oversees the day-to-day operations of the union staff, most of whom are CLAC members.* They’re responsible for
- Labour relations and legal support for the members
- Managing benefits up to the point of long term disability (for which there is a third-party provider)
- Training executive representatives
- Managing communications to the members and public, and the website
- Keeping information technology systems up and running
- Providing administrative support to the board and the executive
*The OPPA’s lawyers and union representatives are not members of CLAC. The representatives, called executive officers, are a mix of OPPA staff and OPP employees who have been seconded to the role.
Back in CLAC’s early days, the union relied heavily on the support of people who weren’t represented by the union but who strongly believed in CLAC’s approach to labour relations and workers’ right to freedom of association. Many gave their time and money to keep CLAC going.
Two of those supporters were Liana Maltby’s parents, Jerry and Betty Riemersma. As members of CLAC’s Barrie General Workers Local in the 1960s, they would often take care of mailing the monthly newsletters. Liana only learned about her parent’s involvement after she and her coworkers joined CLAC.