Carolyn Bennett

Courtesy CBC

Former employees of Crown-Indigenous Minister Carolyn Bennett have revealed details about what they called a “toxic” work environment.

At least seven former Bennett staffers, who worked for the minister between 2016 and 2020, spoke to the CBC which withheld their names. They claimed a workplace complaint was brought to the minister, another to Chief of Staff Sara Welch, and then to the Prime Minister’s Office.

“Bennett — ultimately, the buck stops there — didn’t want to hear about it,” said one Bennett staffer.

“The office was very toxic,” said a staffer.

“That … affected the ability of the office to really move things. It could be toxic and good people don’t stay for toxic.”

Bennett, an Idle No More Activist in 2012 and 2013, became Indigenous Affairs minister in November 2015, then Crown-Indigenous Relations minister in August 2017.

A staffer said Bennett “cared deep down about indigenous people” and wanted to bring change, but “she is very much convinced what the solution is and she has the right way of doing things and looks down on anyone that doesn’t see it her way.”

Former staffers say the minister wants to turn the former U.S. embassy into an indigenous embassy. Despite having “pet issues,” she empowered some of her staff to deal with files as they saw fit. Others felt left out in a “clannish,” dysfunctional, and chaotic workplace where Bennett apparently had her favourites.

One indigenous staffer was reportedly told by policy adviser Emmaline English her people should “get over” and “move on” from the wrongs of the past. When the indigenous staffer discussed a murdered relative at an internal meeting on the topic, English reportedly said her comments were “not warranted.”

Staffers painted a picture of an “unconscious bias” in Bennett and her trusted circle that sometimes excluded input from indigenous staffers. Bennett was told by one of them that she should wait until after the new head of the Assembly of First Nations was chosen before she appeared on the Vancouver Convention Centre floor where he was chosen. She did anyway and even talked with Alberta chiefs that morning. As a result, three of the four candidates for AFN Chief accused her of meddling in the process.

On the other hand, Bennett reportedly deferred so much to AFN Chief Perry Bellegarde when it came to making appointments and other decisions, staff members raised concerns. Then those doing so were reportedly cut out of files.

“If you were a favourite of the minister, your policy files got pushed ahead to the front of the line and if you weren’t, they were just kind of sidetracked,” said a former staffer.

The federal government has challenged a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal order to compensate First Nations children taken into the child welfare system. Cindy Blackstock, head of the First Nation Child and Family Caring Society, has been a persistent critic of the federal stance. Several staffers said Bennett often complained about her and said Blackstock was motivated by “her own ego.”

Bennett also complained about former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould and former Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott, staffers said.

“To me, it seemed there was a competition, that [Bennett] had to be better,” said a former staff member.

“She cannot stand Jody. She saw Jody as a threat,” said another.

Wilson-Raybould conceived of a framework to incorporate Indigenous Rights into other aspects of federal law. Apparently, she clashed with Bennett in 2018 on how to move it forward. The department messed up consultations on the framework, leading to its rejection by First Nations leaders and the abandonment of the idea.

In an e-mailed statement to the CBC, Bennett claimed she always “focused on creating an inclusive environment.” She insisted she had the “utmost” respect for Blackstock and Wilson-Raybould, saying, “It has been an honour to work with them.”

She also said she dealt with human resources issues in her office “expeditiously” and fired a staffer on one occasion.

The PMO would not comment on the record regarding the allegations, nor did English.

Lee Harding is a Western Standard correspondent based in Saskatchewan.

Senior Contributor (Saskatchewan)

Lee Harding is the Senior Saskatchewan Contributor for the Western Standard and Saskatchewan Standard based in the Regina Bureau. He has served as the Saskatchewan Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

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