Indigenous employees were regularly sidelined by a “toxic” working environment in the office of Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett but their complaints fell on deaf ears, several former staffers have told CBC News.
At least one verbal complaint about the workplace environment was brought to the minister herself, while a separate verbal complaint went to her chief of staff, Sarah Welch, said former staff members. Three verbal complaints also went to officials in the Prime Minister’s Office, but they resulted in no action, according to the former staffers.
“Bennett — ultimately, the buck stops there — didn’t want to hear about it,” said one former ministerial staffer.
CBC News spoke with more than half-a-dozen Indigenous and non-Indigenous former staffers who worked in Bennett’s office at various points between 2016 and 2020.
‘Good people don’t stay for toxic’
CBC News agreed to keep their identities confidential because they fear possible workplace repercussions.
“The office was very toxic,” said one former ministerial staffer. “That … affected the ability of the office to really move things. It could be toxic and good people don’t stay for toxic.”
Former staffers said Indigenous employees in Bennett’s office were marginalized — that their views were regularly dismissed and they were often cut out of important decisions on their files.
Bennett’s tenure in an Indigenous affairs portfolio is the second-longest of any federal minister since 1966, when Indian Affairs became a stand-alone department.
Bennett entered cabinet after establishing herself on the Indigenous file through her advocacy on Indigenous rights during the cross-country Idle No More movement between late 2012 and early 2013.
She was appointed Indigenous Affairs minister in November 2015 and became Crown-Indigenous Relations (CIRNA) minister in August 2017, when the department was split into two.
‘Paternalism’ and dysfunction
Some of the former staffers said they believed that Bennett “cared deep down about Indigenous people.” They said she wanted to execute transformational change, but “paternalism” and a dysfunctional office environment got in the way of progress.
“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,” said one former staffer.
Former staffers said that Bennett had “pet issues” — such as the still-unfinished project of turning the old U.S. embassy across from Parliament Hill into an Indigenous embassy — and gave her staff a free hand to deal with most files.
But this freedom allowed toxic behaviour to run unchecked, said former staff members.
The former staffers described a “clannish,” dysfunctional and often chaotic work environment revolving around a tight inner circle of Bennett’s trusted confidants who played favourites with mostly non-Indigenous staff.
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One former staffer alleged an Indigenous staff member’s objectivity on issues related to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls was questioned by Welch.
Another former employee said an Indigenous staffer was told by Emmaline English, a policy adviser later promoted to director of policy, that her people should “get over” and “move on” from atrocities committed by Canada against Indigenous people.
The same Indigenous employee was also told by English that discussing a murdered relative during an internal meeting on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls was “not warranted,” said a former staffer who attended the meeting.
These issues were brought to Welch but she refused to discuss them, said former staffers.
The matter was taken to an official in the Prime Minister’s Office who also failed to address them, the former staffers said.
English did not respond to a request for comments sent through direct messages on social media and to an email address.
A former staffer said a separate complaint about the alleged toxic environment in Bennett’s office was brought verbally to the PMO, but it resulted in no action.
Former staffers said the “unconscious bias” of Bennett’s inner circle and its refusal to listen to the views of Indigenous staff led the office to lose track of the political realities on the ground in Indigenous communities.
That allowed the office to be caught off-guard by the First Nation protests that swept the nation in the winter of 2020 over the construction of a natural gas pipeline in B.C., former staffers said.
“I don’t know how much of the issues over the years have been a result of the minister and her competency versus the people she has had around her,” said one former staffer.
Another former staffer said that failure to listen to Indigenous employees led Bennett into an embarrassing gaffe in 2018, during the election for national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Vancouver.
Welch was told by an Indigenous employee that Bennett should not appear at the Vancouver Convention Centre, where the vote was being held, until after the chiefs had selected the new head of the AFN, according to a former staff member.
But Bennett did show up and met with Alberta chiefs on the morning of the vote, which was won by Perry Bellegarde. That led to claims by three of the four candidates that the minister was meddling in the internal politics of the AFN.
Bennett was forced to acknowledge the controversy in a speech to AFN chiefs after the election.
Former staffers said Bennett overestimated her relationship with First Nation leaders and relied too much on Bellegarde when it came to making decisions, such as choosing people for appointments.
When staff raised concerns about the minister’s reliance on the AFN, they were cut out of files, said former staff members.
“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 one former staffer.
Bennett, Blackstock and Wilson-Raybould
Bennett also took outside criticism from some Indigenous advocates personally, said former staff members.
Cindy Blackstock, who heads the First Nation Child and Family Caring Society, has been a persistent critic of the federal government’s ongoing challenge of a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal order to compensate First Nations children taken into the child welfare system.
Several former staffers said that Bennett often griped about Blackstock, claiming the First Nation child advocate was only doing it for “her own ego.”
Former staffers also said Bennett frequently complained about former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould and former Indigenous Services minister Jane Philpott.
“To me, it seemed there was a competition, that [Bennett] had to be better,” said one former staff member.
“She cannot stand Jody [Wilson-Raybould]. She saw Jody as a threat,” said another.
Bennett said she had the “utmost” respect for Blackstock and Wilson-Raybould.
“It has been an honour to work with them on critically important files such as Indigenous child welfare reform, the affirmation of Indigenous rights and advancing the self-determination of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples in Canada,” the minister said in an emailed statement.
Bennett and Wilson-Raybould clashed internally over the direction of a signature government promise on Indigenous rights announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Valentine’s Day in 2018.
Bennett ended up leading the file to implement the Indigenous rights and recognition framework — which would have incorporated section 35 of the Constitution, which affirms Indigenous rights, into other aspects of federal law.
However, Bennett’s department mishandled consultation on the framework, which was roundly rejected by First Nation leaders and later scrapped by the federal government.
The concept of the framework was developed by Wilson-Raybould before she entered federal politics.
Wilson-Raybould and Philpott ended up leaving the Liberal cabinet in the wake of the SNC-Lavalin scandal.
‘I am very concerned’
CBC News sent Bennett and Welch a list of detailed questions about the allegations.
In the statement she sent to CBC News, Bennett said she has always “focused on creating an inclusive environment” that respected all voices on her team.
“It has been imperative to me that the voices of Indigenous members of our team are heard. I am very concerned that any former staff would feel they are not an integral part of our team or that their perspectives were not valued. I am very grateful to the team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in my office,” said Bennett’s statement.
Bennett said any time human resources issues surfaced in her office, they were taken “seriously and dealt with expeditiously” — through “dismissal” in at least one case.
The PMO would not comment on the record, but a senior government source told CBC News PMO officials have no record of receiving complaints about Bennett’s office.
According to former staffers, at least 11 Indigenous people have entered and left Bennett’s office since she was handed the Indigenous Affairs portfolio, which turned into her current role at CIRNA after the department was split in two in 2017.
“When I got there, I quickly realized I was a token,” said one former staffer.
“I was there to attend events with her so she had a First Nations staffer with her, she wasn’t just bringing her white staff. My voice was never heard … my experience never mattered, it seemed, because they were white and they had been to a First Nation community, they knew more … they had better knowledge.”