On a Friday afternoon in the spring of last year, an email landed in my inbox that was unlike any email I’d received before.
While many of The Narwhal’s stories feature the voices of environmental organizations, this email detailed concerns about abusive behaviour at an environmental organization itself. My initial thinking was: “Wow, this is a tough one.”
I felt torn: The Narwhal exists to tell stories about the natural world that aren’t told anywhere else, but what happens when those stories are about the people who are ostensibly working to protect the natural world?
I decided I needed to learn more.
I set up a phone call with former employees of Pacific Wild, a B.C.-based non-profit focused on conservation, especially within the Great Bear Rainforest. I remember sitting outside on my patio in the spring sunshine while I heard them recount their experiences with the organization’s co-founder and executive director, Ian McAllister, who’s also a well-known wildlife photographer.
What I heard felt at once surprising and deeply familiar, because here’s the thing: experiences like what they were alleging are not as uncommon as we like to think they are. And that’s part of why it’s important to tell stories like these: because they are emblematic of larger systemic problems, not just a single person or a single organization.
What was clearest to me as I hung up that phone call was that these former workers were contemplating risking an awful lot because they wanted to ensure no one else went through what they said they experienced.
I knew taking on a story like this would eat up a ton of resources and come with significant legal risk. I wished I could turn my back on it, but I was reminded of the quote: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
So I asked our managing editor Mike De Souza to assess whether he felt there was enough evidence to pursue a story. Eventually, we assigned the story to reporter Stephanie Wood, seconding her onto this investigation for the bulk of the last six months.
Thanks to Steph’s diligent and persistent reporting, The Narwhal published its investigation today.
Steph spoke with more than a dozen former contractors and employees of Pacific Wild, many of whom described a toxic and chaotic workplace. They alleged Ian would humiliate them in front of others, put them in unsafe marine situations and risked animal safety when he hung a dead seal from a tree to attract wolves and take photos of them. They also allege Ian had a sexual relationship with a female staff member who reported to him, spanning about two years. In 2020, she resigned and sent an email to board members alleging Ian displayed “anger,” “manipulation” and “emotional abuse.” She said there was a “lack of accountability at Pacific Wild.”
The Narwhal learned that Pacific Wild board members were alerted to Ian’s conduct at least twice between 2015 and 2020 but both Ian and his wife Karen sat on the board, which ostensibly should have had oversight over the organization’s executive director. On Aug. 16, 2021, Ian resigned as executive director, with a statement from Ian at the time stating: “It’s time for me to step away for personal and professional reasons and for a new executive director to take the organization forward.” His wife Karen took over the position and remains executive director today.
We tried to speak to a wide range of people for this story. Most of the people we connected with shared concerns about the workplace at Pacific Wild, but some did tell us they had a positive experience and we’ve also reflected that in the story. Not everyone we spoke with was comfortable speaking on the record, because they are scared about the impact of speaking out. So, in line with Canadian Association of Journalists standards, we’ve verified the information they shared but kept their identities anonymous.
Former Pacific Wild workers told us they wanted to blow the whistle on the organization because they don’t want other young conservationists to have a similar experience.
“I feel like it’s hugely disrupted and damaged so many lives, and the lives of so many up-and-coming conservationists and people who are wanting to do good in the industry,” one worker told us.
We tried repeatedly to get Ian, Karen or someone from Pacific Wild’s board of directors to speak to us for this story, but they did not respond. Instead, we received an emailed statement from a public relations firm.
“Pacific Wild Alliance does not comment on personnel matters but observes that all organizations face challenges as they renew and grow,” the statement says.
“Ian McAllister led Pacific Wild during its first chapter. While he no longer has any operational or leadership role with the organization, Pacific Wild is energized under its new leadership and focused on continuing its efforts in wildlife habitat protection.”
Since we launched The Narwhal we’ve been committed to two things: 1) Find the facts. 2) Tell it like it is. That’s what we’ve worked hard to do here.
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