SHERBROOKE – The sudden departure of Sherbrooke Village Executive Director Stephen Flemming is raising more questions than it answers as the living museum begins adjusting to life without its well-known boss of five years.
In an interview with The Journal last week, Sherbrooke Restoration Commission (SRC) Chair Margaret Harpell, confirmed that Flemming – who worked directly for SRC, and recently hosted an Indigenous Art Exhibit on July 25 – is “no longer employed” at the tourism attraction and jobs’ anchor for upwards of 100 St. Mary’s residents.
But she refused to elaborate on the circumstances of his leaving – including whether or not he had been fired. “It’s a human resources thing,” Harpell said, adding: “There’s no comment on it. I think that everybody would appreciate confidentiality, on any HR issue.”
Regarding the immediate administration of the museum, she confirmed, “There’s a new executive director being looked for – a temporary one and [then] for a permanent one. Currently, it’s being managed by the commission.”
A response from the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage – to which the SRC reports – stated that “Mr. Flemming’s employment is with the Sherbrooke Restoration Commission and any questions regarding his status are best addressed with the chair of the commission.”
Meanwhile, emails to Flemming’s work were returned as “undeliverable”, and phone messages to his Sherbrooke residence, where he lives with his family, were not returned – nor was a call to Robin Anderson, Sherbrooke Village’s Director of Visitor Experience.
The Journal also reached out to several other individuals connected to the Village – including Lynne Hayne (Learning Centre and Events Manager), Rene Beaver (Commissioner, Sherbrooke Restoration Commission) and Neil Black (Board Member, Historic Sherbrooke Village Development Society) – but all declined to comment.
Independent accounts from at least three unnamed St. Mary’s residents, however, paint a consistent picture of events: They say at some point between August 2-6, Flemming arrived for work at the Village, was told to leave and then escorted off the property by a security guard, after which the locks on office doors were changed.
Asked directly about these versions of what transpired, Harpell stated, “Like I said, there’s no comment on that. It’s strictly an HR issue.”
Pushed to explain whether that meant the commission, as the Village’s formal governing body and its staff employer, was required to follow a specific protocol in Flemming’s situation, she said, “No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying we have no comments on this. It’s strictly an HR issue.”
When Flemming assumed the top job on May 2, 2016, a post to the Village’s Facebook page stated: “Stephen comes to us from an extensive career with Parks Canada, most recently as Superintendent at Elk Island National Park in Alberta. Stephen has a Ph.D. in Biology and an impressive list of awards, scholarships, academic appointments, and publications. Stephen spent much of his youth in Lower Caledonia and this part of Nova Scotia as always been ‘home’ to him. In Stephen’s words, ‘coming to work at Sherbrooke Village is a dream come true and a joy to once again be working back home in Eastern Nova Scotia.’”
Until COVID-19 shut down public attractions across the province, Sherbrooke Village had experienced steady increases in visitor traffic, with 136,000 people visiting the complex between 2015-19, compared with approximately 98,000 during the 2011-14 period.
During this time, Flemming spearheaded a broad effort to position the living museum as a cultural and economic anchor for tourism training and development in eastern Nova Scotia through the Rural Institute for Cultural Heritage and Environmental Sustainability (RICHES), which received a $68,000 provincial grant for planning and curriculum development in 2019.
Last June, while still under pandemic lockdown, Sherbrooke Village received a more substantial, $994,000 provincial grant – part of a $228 million community stimulus package designed to offset the economic effects of the COVID-19 emergency – to repair and upgrade many of the living museum’s roughly 90 vintage structures, and complete work on a new community park. Flemming had also planned to use this money to leverage matching funds from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency to expanded the RICHES initiative.
“The building upgrades and the community park are one thing,” he told The Journal last July, “but so are the training and skills development programs around music and arts and experiential tourism. That’s the other piece – building a lovely cultural campus. We’re layering things on top of one another deliberately, so that the teaching facility is also an active tourism experience. The two things link very nicely.”
Regarding these initiatives – and ongoing facility management and employee relations at the Village – Harpell said: “Yes … It’s business as usual.”