The province is demanding “immediate action” from a Toronto agency found to be misusing sports and concert tickets destined for children of low-income families, says the minister of training, colleges and universities, one of the ministries that funds the non-profit.
“Our government expects your organization and your board of directors … to take real and concrete steps to hold any individuals responsible accountable for these actions, and to take immediate action to ensure that similar actions do not occur in the future,” minister Merrilee Fullerton wrote in a letter to La Passerelle I.D.E.
“Organizations receiving government funding are expected to act transparently, ethically, and in the best interests of the people they serve,” wrote Fullerton.
The minister’s letter was sent to La Passerelle last Thursday, shortly after a Star story detailed the misuse of Raptors and other tickets, but before a story this week that exposed serious issues with a $1.5-million federal grant La Passerelle received, which was aimed at rescuing women from prostitution.
Provincial officials said they have yet to receive a response to their stiffly worded letter from either Léonie Tchatat, the executive director of La Passerelle, or Farah Ghorbel, chair of the board of directors. Ghorbel is the wife of one of Tchatat’s senior employees, who runs one of the employment programs that receives provincial funding.
Since 2015, provincial ministries and the Ontario Trillium Foundation have given about $2 million in grants to La Passerelle for various programs. More than $600,000 of that came in 2018. The money has come from several ministries and Tchatat often uses her social media accounts to display photographs taken of her at events with government officials, including Caroline Mulroney, the minister responsible for francophone affairs and Ontario’s attorney general. (Mulroney did not respond to a request for comment by the Star.)
Since the Star began asking questions about how La Passerelle, a small agency, is spending government money, some of the ministry funders have told the Star they are now looking through files to see if the money is being spent as intended. La Passerelle also receives funding from the City of Toronto and the federal government, and several charities including the United Way.
With a mission to help francophone immigrants find work in Toronto, La Passerelle is run by Tchatat and her husband, Guy Taffo, the agency’s accountant. The couple came to Canada from Cameroon in the 1990s. Besides their Toronto office, they maintain an office in Paris.
Two recent Star stories have raised serious issues with La Passerelle. The first detailed how Tchatat and Taffo, who own a house in Rosedale, property in Cameroon and lease a summer cottage in Muskoka, were using concert and sports tickets themselves, or giving them to family, friends or La Passerelle staff. The tickets — they received 782 of them with a face value of $54,000 in the last two years — were from Kids Up Front, a charity that serves children who, due to economic limitations, cannot attend a game or concert. Kids Up Front has banned La Passerelle from receiving any more tickets.
Tchatat and Taffo said through their lawyer they were only using Raptors, Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift and other tickets that “otherwise would have gone unused.” After they were banned, Tchatat issued a brief statement, saying, “We regret our misunderstanding in this matter.”
The most recent story in the Star detailed a $1.5-million federal grant from Public Safety Canada, aimed at rescuing young women from prostitution. La Passerelle applied for and received the grant, and held three coffee and dinner meetings in 2018 with 26 women who, unbeknownst to them, would form the core group of the project. The federal description of the project said La Passerelle would “develop and implement a transitioning and exiting program responsive to the needs of sex workers in this community.”
The Star found that the 26 women all held jobs in public relations, marketing, fundraising, and several work for a provincial ministry. None are or ever were prostitutes. They were told they were attending a “women’s empowerment meeting,” according to six who were interviewed by the Star.
Reports have been filed to the federal government detailing the progress of the project, which Tchatat called “Sans Visage” (faceless, or without a face in English). The Star’s investigation found that very little if anything has been done to justify the $1.5-million grant. One of the organizers estimated to the Star that a maximum of $5,000 was spent on Sans Visage.
In her response to the Star through her lawyer, Tchatat has said that her program deals with “informal prostitution,” which she says is when a woman has relationships with several men, who provide financial help such as paying rent.
After the Star’s story was published on Sunday, Tchatat issued a statement saying her organization “denounces in the strongest possible terms the Toronto Star article.” She said the Star’s article “further stigmatizes francophone women of colour who find themselves in a vulnerable position.” She said all money received from the federal government has been “spent in accordance with budgets submitted to the government.”
Federal officials said Monday morning they were preparing a response, but none was issued at press time.
In March of this year, Tchatat held a dinner meeting with 15 new women who, like the first group, were told Sans Visage was a “leadership and empowerment” meeting. According to women who attended, there was no mention of prostitution. Rather, a specialist on meditation spoke to them and then a woman gave them each a “henna tattoo” on their hands.
“Everyone is in shock after hearing the true background of this project,” a woman told the Star. “At no time did we talk about prostitution.”
Kevin Donovan can be reached at 416-312-3503 or email@example.com