The Ontario government has cut all funding to francophone non-profit La Passerelle I.D.E. following allegations that it misused government dollars earmarked for the training and education of new immigrants from French-speaking countries.
“The ministries are taking steps to investigate further, in order to address their concerns and ensure accountability and transparency for tax payers’ money,” said Ciara Byrne, spokesperson for the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services. After a “compliance review,” Byrne said the government “made the decision to end the transfer payment agreements” with the non profit.
La Passerelle, run by Rosedale couple Leonie Tchatat and Guy Taffo, came under scrutiny earlier this year by provincial and federal ministries after a series of Star stories on the misuse by Tchatat, Taffo and their staff and friends of sports and concert tickets donated for low-income families and the alleged misuse of a multi-million dollar federal grant to rescue people from the sex trade. The charity that donated the tickets to La Passerelle — $54,000 of Toronto Raptors, Taylor Swift and other premium tickets in the last two years — quickly cut the group off from receiving any more tickets. The federal government is still investigating.
The provincial decision came after its review of close to $1 million granted to the non profit in the last three years to run a variety of training programs, some in concert with local colleges. The provincial statement does not say what issues its auditors dug up. Any people currently in La Passerelle programs will be transferred to other provincial programs, the spokesperson said.
The Star’s own investigation of the non profit looked at the roughly $5 million it has been granted in the last three years, which includes the provincial contribution, the federal anti-prostitution grant and grants from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, the city of Toronto and several charities.
In one case, the Star found that in 2018, La Passerelle reported spending $335,506 on office supplies and furniture. Insiders at the non profit told the Star that they have not seen any new furniture at the Yonge and Carlton St. offices.
Taking to Twitter Tuesday, Tchatat acknowledged that the province had cut funding to her group from SkillsAdvance Ontario and Ontario Bridge Training Programs. But she said the letters the province sent her “are full of inconsistencies and point to a decision made with a lack of rigour.”
“We maintain, as we have at every step in the process, that all public funds that have been received to administer our programs have always been used as intended,” Tchatat wrote, noting that she has been “partnering” with many governments for the past twenty years.
“The decision remains puzzling to us,” Tchatat said. As to the ongoing review the province has announced she said she will “be working with the government on the additional reviews it has requested.”
Tchatat, who came to Canada from Cameroon in the 1990s, is well known at Queen’s Park and her social media feed often includes photos of herself with government leaders, including Caroline Mulroney, the minister responsible for francophone affairs. Mulroney’s office referred all questions by the Star regarding La Passerelle to other ministries.
On Tuesday, the Star contacted the federal government to determine the progress of its probe into the single largest government grant Tchatat and Taffo’s non profit has ever received. That money comes from a federal program set up to help sex workers exit that lifestyle. To date, $400,000 of the $1.5 million grant has flowed to La Passerelle.
In its investigation, the Star found that the “Sans Visage” program Tchatat created (“without a face” in English) did not deal with sex workers at all. Instead, Tchatat held a small dinner at Marche cafe and a boardroom session with 26 young female professionals from public relations and fundraising and billed it as an “empowerment event.” At a second session, Tchatat offered a meditation session and Henna tattoos.
The 26 women have since hired a lawyer and are investigating whether their names and personal details, collected by Tchatat, were ever shared with the federal funders. Both Tchatat and the federal government say that only statistical summaries of the program were sent to Ottawa.
Tchatat, in answer to questions about the federal grant, said she used the money to counteract the effects of what she called “informal prostitution,” which her lawyer, Peter Downard, later described as entering into several intimate relationships “based on economic dependence.”
At time of writing, federal spokesperson Tim Warmington had not responded with an update of their audit. Previously, he said the public safety department, which funds La Passerelle, is taking the allegations seriously.
“The federal government … will take measures, if necessary, to recover funds and/or terminate projects that are not fulfilling obligations under the funding agreement,” said public safety department spokesperson Tim Warmington.
“I was absolutely shocked and stunned,” one woman told the Star. A new group of 15 women recently attended a session, also billed as “empowerment” and were not told the true funding designation: helping sex workers exit their lifestyle.
Kevin Donovan can be reached at 416-312-3503 or email@example.com