Can a foundation recognized as a charity by the Canadian Revenue Agency support a political candidate? Should the organization’s executive director be able to travel as much as he wants – in business class, to boot? Should he have the right to refuse being evaluated by the administrative board? And should the board be packed with several members of the president and founder’s family?
These are among the questions raised by the unusual proceedings of the Paul Gérin-Lajoie Foundation, a charity that’s funded by both the federal and provincial governments and receives tax-deductible donations from individuals.
Its founder is well-known. Mr. Gérin-Lajoie, 94, was a high-profile politician and Quebec’s education minister from 1964 to 1966, under Jean Lesage’s Liberal government. He is now president of the foundation’s board.
The foundation’s mission is to help promote primary education in West Africa and Haiti. Mr. Gérin-Lajoie’s son, François, has been working for the foundation for 18 years, first as director of finance, then executive director. He now holds the title of president.
During the recent Quebec election, Paul Gérin-Lajoie was photographed hugging Fatima Houda-Pépin, a long-time Liberal MNA who was running as an independent in the riding of La Pinière, south of Montreal, after her stormy confrontation with Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard over the secular charter. This apparent endorsement was followed by a letter that François Gérin-Lajoie, in his capacity as foundation president, sent to 94 people urging them to contribute financially to Ms. Houda-Pépin’s campaign.
It is well-known that Canadian non-governmental organizations that are supported by public funds are strictly forbidden to engage in political activity of any kind. This could cause them to lose their tax-exempt status. In addition, François Gérin-Lajoie could be subject to a fine of up to $20,000 for circumventing provincial electoral law, which stipulates that only a candidate’s official agent can solicit contributions. Despite his years of experience in the charity field, he told reporters he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong.
But this foray into partisan politics was only the tip of the iceberg. In the wake of these events, disgruntled members of the staff and board told reporters that the foundation has been in crisis for the past 10 years. Among the irregularities are François Gérin-Lajoie’s travel expenses, which often included business-class flights. In 2013, he exceeded his travel budget by $50,000. Since last fall, he has travelled to Senegal four times. In February, the foundation decided to shut down its educative mission in Senegal for lack of funds.
The foundation has a budget of $5-million, of which more than a quarter ($1,521,292) was spent on salaries in the past fiscal year. The problem, according to a former member of the board, is the “incestuous” nature of the organization. Another son and a son-in-law of Paul Gérin-Lajoie have sat on the board, as have close family friends. François Gérin-Lajoie’s clout is such that, according to a former administrator, he refused for many years to be evaluated by the board – a routine procedure in the NGO sphere.
In April, three independent members of the board resigned to protest against the dismissal of executive director Nadja Pollaert, whose only fault, according to them, had been to criticize Mr. Gérin-Lajoie’s questionable decisions.
As for Ms. Houda-Pépin, the foundation’s help didn’t prevent her from being defeated in La Pinière by Gaétan Barrette, who has become Quebec’s new Health Minister.