One former CEO, three resigned board members, a lengthy list of Canada’s elite athletes, and almost two thousand members of the Enough EC advocacy group all believe the same thing: Equestrian Canada needs to change.
“We have a structure that is not yet animated by the right spirit, that is the charitable explanation,” was the remark of former Equine Canada CEO Akaash Maharaj in a lecture he gave at the University of Guelph. “There is a less charitable explanation, and that is that the structure has been created specifically and explicitly for the purpose of insulating the leadership from the people they are meant to be serving.”
Maharaj pointed to several issues he found concerning during the lecture, but it was the structure of the organization that he found most troubling.
“The seminal catastrophe for Equestrian Canada was the decision to shift from an organization of mass membership where every sport license holder and Canadian equestrian had a vote and had a voice. We were an organization of 90,000 members, [and have become] an organization that now has 27 individuals.”
While EC’s structure did need to change to meet the standards in Canada’s new Not For Profit Act, Maharaj pointed out that it absolutely did not need to change to this particular format. “There is quite literally an infinite number of structures that Equine Canada could have chosen to be compliant with the Not For Profit Act,” he explained.
There are two main issues that the new format was meant to address. First, the NFP requires that the federation have the names and addresses for all of its members. Second, the new format was meant to streamline the organization that had in excess of 130 committees.
Second Class Equestrian Canada Members
That the NFP required EC to have the contact information for all members was an issue because some of the provinces have refused to share their members’ contact information with the national federation. Publicly, the provinces cite privacy concerns, but the underlying problem is that after years of strained negotiations, the provinces don’t trust the federation not to undermine them in some crippling way. For example, EC might start to sell its own insurance product directly to provincial members, which is currently a major source of revenue for the provinces, or EC could decide to revoke the powers of the organizations and start their own versions. By keeping the names/addresses of their members to themselves, the provinces protect their interests – and that of their members – and hold a powerful negotiating card.
The new structure has relegated all the provincial members to a class of membership – “Registered Participant” – for which the NFP doesn’t require EC to have contact information. Instead, EC has the contact information for the 27 voting members. The unfortunate side effect, however, has been to distill the voices of the entire industry to these few people who were appointed to their positions. The diminished strength of the voting group also appears to have given management license to force their initiatives rather than working on a compromise when faced with unprecedented dissent.
“If you have 90,000 members or your membership is the entire country, there is a very different psychology at play than if your membership is only 27 people whom you have effectively chosen yourself,” described Maharaj. “There has now been a reversal in accountability in the structure. Previously, the 90,000 members of Equine Canada would elect their representative bodies, their governing committees, and those bodies were accountable to Canadian equestrians – imperfectly accountable, but still accountable in principle to the people who elected them – and would make the policies that govern the organization. Today, that has been largely reversed, and virtually all the committees are instead appointed by the professional leadership of Equestrian Canada as extensions of their power, and extensions of their own judgement. Needless to say, the advice of a committee made up of individuals who have a mandate from equestrians at large is very different from the advice of a committee made up of people who owe their positions to the EC leadership.”
The composition of the voting categories is also an issue, with three groups of nine that don’t include large sections of the industry. Category A (the sport group) doesn’t currently have any representative from Eventing; in a country with 10 provinces and three territories Category B (the provincial group) will never have full representation; and Category C (the breeds and industry group) doesn’t have a hope of being representative of all the many, many businesses and associations that make up the Canadian equestrian industry.
To make matters worse, EC has done little to support the voting members in their new roles. The major problem is that the current Governance Manual was poorly constructed and doesn’t establish any lines of communication between the voters and EC, or the voters and the Registered Participants and vice versa. Moreover, their mandate specifically only gives them the authority to vote on governance matters and approve Financial Statements; there is nothing about their duty to communicate with anybody, leaving the 90,000 Registered Participants in the dark! The system has caused mass confusion so that, at last check, the groups couldn’t figure out how to elect a chair, much less record meeting minutes or establish how they were meant to proceed.
Streamlined or Sinking?
The new bylaws were also meant to make EC more efficient. The new structure would eliminate many of the volunteer committees that were part of EC’s old Council structure and replace them with paid staff that would fulfill those same duties under the supervision of CEO Eva Havaris’s Operational Committee. It is this change that has by far caused the most trouble for the industry and has resulted in all the many public and private complaints.
While the old committees were difficult to manage because they had so many volunteers and covered so much ground, the people involved had the necessary experience to handle the business of running this industry. Some committees were more effective than others in their ability to achieve their objectives, and some did flounder with indecision and conflict, but the alternative has turned out to be even worse. By replacing many of the volunteer functions with paid staff, EC has grossly underestimated the depth of knowledge and amount of work that the volunteers contributed.
On his resignation from the board, Terrance Millar succinctly commented on EC’s new reliance of paid staff, “I don’t think they have the knowledge, background, skill set, or capacity to do so.”
The new structure had originally been sold to the industry as “volunteer-led and staff-driven.” Those involved with crafting the new bylaws understood that the main committees – especially the discipline committees – would largely have the same roles and responsibilities, but that EC staff would do more to help with administrative matters. Instead of consulting with the committees, however, EC staff have disregarded or totally bypassed them, resulting in mass chaos. Examples range from rule books being issued with incorrect information, officials being approved without following the proper protocol, and major changes made to a variety of important documents without any consultation. In the past, all of these issues would have been caught by the volunteer committees, but EC staff either don’t bother or have been directed not to consult with them now.
After resigning from EC’s board, Frédéric Pierrestiger also expressed his concerns about the structure of EC in an exclusive interview with Horse Sport magazine.
“I can’t help within the current structure. Yes, I have concerns about what has been raised and I would have loved to have everybody together, but to be effective 1) Everybody has to be willing to move forward; 2) The present structure isn’t helping to build these bridges.”
Pierrestiger explained that the new structure discourages communication between the many facets of EC, which has resulted in the current tension and distrust. “The changes that were put in place made a board that is very detached from the operation. We don’t have a representative board, just directors at large, and they have little say in operations.”
He pointed to the system used by the Quebec equestrian federation as being particularly effective. “In Quebec, there are different committees and on each one you have one member from the board. The direct link favours communication and understanding and helps to resolve problems. There are always problems, it is normal. We wouldn’t need a federation if there weren’t problems. Problems need solutions, that’s all. Maybe there is too much focus on the CEO which is there to manage in a way that has been so instructed.
“The new format doesn’t favour this communication, because it’s very formal. There is not enough connection between the board and the stakeholders. This new format is not helping to solve the problem, because it causes a disconnect. I believe that when people are sitting in the same room they will find a solution. They don’t have to agree to everything, but when you want to move forward you try to find a solution. If a board member was on the committees being directly accountable, that communication would happen. I can tell you if I was on that committee I would listen and understand, report, and take action. That’s easy. That would be one way to make it happen.”
How to Bring About Change in Equestrian Canada
There has been much talk of filing a lawsuit to remove management at EC, but that hinges on finding an error that is serious enough to warrant the considerable legal costs. In the absence of that proof, the only solution is to work within the system.
The first avenue is to vote for new voting members that represent industry interests. While the current voting members were appointed, there is an election process that starts at this year’s AGM at which time the terms of several voting members will expire. In another example of its lack of transparency, however, EC has refused to release the term limits for the voting members, so it’s impossible to know which seats will be vacant. Their refusal is partially because they are trying to change the terms and composition of the categories, but the suggestions have been met with serious opposition.
The second chance is to affect change through the board. Eight of the 12 board seats are also up for election at this year’s AGM and the board has appointed a nominating committee which will review applications and present a list of approved candidates to the 27 members to vote on. Nominations are open until June 1st and anybody in good standing with EC can apply (see this page for details).
EC will host its annual convention at the beginning of April in Vancouver and the keynote address is titled “Aligning the Canadian Equestrian Community for Peak Performance” followed by a workshop on “Building a Unified Equestrian Community.” The facilitator would do well to consider one of Maharaj’s observations: “there is a crisis of understanding in the federation of who serves whom.”