When the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) announced it had purchased the Frost Centre on Jan. 8, 2021, the union said the historic Highlands site was “set for new life and a major lift” as a member resource and training centre.
More than two years later, OPSEU executives involved in the purchase – Warren Thomas and Eduardo Almeida – are no longer with the union. Former president, Thomas, has retired and former first vice-president and treasurer, Almeida, was defeated in a March 19, 2022 election.
In addition, on Jan. 16, 2023, OPSEU said it had commenced legal action against Thomas, Almeida and Maurice Gabay, alleging financial improprieties and seeking damages of more than $6 million. The claims have not been proven in court.
Meanwhile, OPSEU is facing a civil lawsuit from a Muskoka-based contractor hired to do work at the site. The union has in turn filed a statement of defence and counterclaim.
OPSEU declined to comment on the civil lawsuit when contacted by The Highlander.
However, OPSEU told The Highlander on Feb. 22, it, “has put together a project team to consider options for the Frost Centre. Unfortunately, we can’t comment further at this time. Thanks in advance for your understanding.”
An OPSEU spokesperson added, “the project team … was created to review plans and options for the Frost Centre because of the change in leadership. While we don’t yet know the outcome of that process, we are committed to ensuring that all actions and decisions of the current administration are guided by the principles of transparency and accountability to OPSEU members and the communities they support.”
The union purchased the Frost Centre’s land and 21 buildings from the provincial government for $3.2 million.
Contractor and OPSEU at odds
A&C Company Inc., in a statement of claim filed Nov. 8, 2022 in the Bracebridge Superior Court of Justice, alleges OPSEU owes the contractor $755,645.13 for work done at the Frost Centre. A&C Company is also seeking $2.5 million in damages.”
OPSEU’s statement of defence and counterclaim, dated Jan. 20, 2023, and also lodged in Bracebridge Superior Court of Justice. “denies it is liable to pay the May 2022 invoices and the unauthorized invoices.”
Civil lawsuit ongoing between contractor and union
The statement of defence and counterclaim further says, “OPSEU denies that A&C is entitled to any of the damages (including consequential damages), remedies or relief claimed, and puts A&C to the strict proof thereof.” It goes on to say the claims for damages are “exaggerated, remote, and not recoverable at law.” It also, “submits that this action should be dismissed as against it, with costs.”
In the counterclaim, OPSEU is seeking damages of its own, “in an amount to be determined in advance of trial.”
According to the statement of claim, A&C Company was awarded a tender on Sept. 15, 2021 at a price of $250 per square foot. It says former OPSEU executive Almeida regularly inspected the site, directed A&C to do additional work, and that invoices, “were regularly approved in a timely manner and paid from October 2021 to May 2021, up to just under $5 million [in total payments].”
However, OPSEU says in its statement of defence and counterclaim that, “Almeida was not in charge of the Frost Centre Project and the decision-making on behalf of the executive board. To the extent any instructions were provided to A&C verbally, Almeida did not have the authority to independently direct and approve A&C’s work. A&C knew or ought to have known that approvals for work beyond the scope of the tender should have been obtained from OPSEU executive board. A&C failed to seek and obtain such approvals.”
OPSEU says it only authorized the contractor to repair the downspouts and eaves before winter, ensure there was working heating in all the main buildings, repair areas to prevent rodent access, and start demolishing the main building. “No further instructions were provided to A&C in writing with respect to the Frost Centre Project (until OPSEU directed A&C to cease work …)” it said. But A&C, in the statement of claim, said Almeida told A&C principal, Adrian Tycki, to renovate the former headmaster’s house, Kawagama Hall, two warehouses, the water purification plant, the water treatment plant, and the generator building which housed the backup generator for the entire complex. “Invoices for this additional work were rendered to OPSEU, approved and paid in full.”
The statement of claim says that following the March 19, 2022 union elections, members of the new executive board visited the Frost Centre on June 8, 2022, and told Tycki, “they were not aware of the extent of the work yet to be completed.” The claim further alleges that new first vice president and treasurer Laurie Nancekivell verbally told Tycki he should not proceed with any new work.
The claim goes on to say the contractor was asked to list the work required to keep the centre maintained, to itemize projects being worked on, and to provide an assessment of the stage of completion. The claim then says the contractor received written instructions on Sept. 16, 2022 to refrain from doing additional work without written approval. It goes on to say A&C Company sought to be paid for its outstanding invoices, but that OPSEU refused to respond to its communication attempts.
The defence and counterclaim says, “OPSEU’s new leadership has identified deficiencies with A&C’s work, approvals and invoicing practices. OPSEU pleads it has overpaid A&C and should be reimbursed for any deficient work, inappropriate billing, extra billing, unauthorized cost overruns, inflated costs, interest, fees and or charges involved or claimed by A&C.” The claims have not been proven in court.
The statement of claim says the Frost Centre’s 21 structures had been vacant for more than a decade, “and been allowed to seriously deteriorate.”
Tycki told The Highlander on Feb. 23 that he thought the site was 25 per cent complete. He said they had done mould remediation and stopped deterioration.” The next task would have been to convert the existing spaces to accommodate a member resource and training centre.
The Frost Centre story to date:
• In 1921, a ranger station was established on the west shore of St. Nora Lake by the Department of Lands and Forests.
• In 1944, the province and the University of Toronto Faculty of Forestry entered into a partnership to educate government personnel and university students.
• In 1974, Premier Bill Davis announced that the facility would be developed as a demonstration area in resources management, education and recreation and would be called The Leslie M. Frost Natural Resources Centre.
• On July 6, 2004, the Liberals announced it was closing the centre in one week.
• On July 13, 2004 the centre closed.
• A massive public protest and rally ensued. Proponents got the government to lease, not sell, the property. The Friends of The Frost Centre is launched.
• In 2007, the Frost Centre Institute was established, but closed in 2010.
• The Ontario government of the day put the property up for sale but was unsuccessful in selling it.
• On Oct. 29, 2020 the property was again put up for sale.
• On Jan. 8, 2021, OPSEU announced it had purchased the historic site for $3.2 million.
• A contractor was hired to begin work on the site, claiming to have done $5 million worth of remediation.
• In February, 2023, the union sues three of its former executives and tells The Highlander, it is now considering options for the Frost Centre.