APTN National News
The former Liberal candidate appointed by Indigenous-Crown Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett to conduct consultations on First Nation child welfare issues was given a $437,000 contract to do eight months of work, according to internal documents.
Bennett appointed Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, chair of truth and reconciliation at Lakehead University, as her special representative on child welfare in August 2016. The appointment, which ended on March 31, was made following the January 2016 ruling from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal which found Ottawa discriminated against First Nation children by under-funding child welfare services on-reserve.
Wesley-Esquimaux, who ran for the Liberals in 2011, was required to conduct consultations on child welfare, act as a mediator and conduct media interviews and produce a report on the issue, according to the contract obtained by NDP MP Charlie Angus.
Bennett appointed Wesley-Esquimaux while the federal Liberal government was facing censure from the human rights tribunal for failing to immediately implement changes and increase funding to close the funding gap between child-welfare agencies on reserves and those off-reserve.
“The issue here is a government that is in Federal Court trying to squash an order of the Human Rights Tribunal and they hire a former Liberal candidate and pay her upwards of $430,000,” said Angus. “Why would (Bennett) spend almost half a million for someone going around to write reports when the (tribunal) ruling is staring at us in the face?”
The Liberal government is currently before the Federal Court seeking clarification on one of the tribunal’s orders on Jordan’s Principle. Ottawa is challenging part of the order which requires all Jordan’s Principle cases be processed within 48 hours.
Under Jordan’s Principle, the health care needs of First Nations children are placed ahead of jurisdictional disputes between the federal and provincial governments. It also applies to other public services, including education, early childhood learning and child welfare.
Cindy Blackstock, who heads the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, said she felt sticker shock after seeing the dollar amounts in the contract.
“Close to one half a million dollars is an extraordinary amount of money for what appears to be a public relations exercise instead of ending the government’s woeful discrimination toward the 165,000 children affected by the tribunal’s decision,” said Blackstock. “For reconciliation to take hold, the government needs to acknowledge its ongoing discrimination against First Nations children and then move to identify and remediate the government thinking, policies and practices that allow it to continue. There can be no reconciliation while the government of Canada continues to perpetuate injustices toward First Nations children and their families.”
According to the contract, Wesley-Esquimaux was to be paid about $250,000 for her work. The hourly rates and per diems in the contract were blanked out in the released version of the contract. The contract also set aside $100,000 for travel and living expenses along with $87,600 for “other direct expenses.”
The package of documents released to Angus included two separate invoices for the same date range —Oct. 3, 2016 to Oct. 5, 2016.
One invoice for $8,287, was divided between $6,780 for “professional services,” $1,098 for travel and $409 for “miscellaneous.”
The second invoice for the same date range totaled $7,532 and it was divided between $6,000 for professional services and $1,532 for travel.
That same October, Wesley-Esquimaux invoiced the department $10,811 for work done between Oct 6, 2016 and Oct. 31, 2016. Only $344 was spent on travel, the rest was split between professional services, $7,797, and $2,670 for miscellaneous expenses.
Wesley-Esquimaux billed the department a total of $23,656 for one month of work in October 2016, excluding travel, according to the documents.
Wesley-Esquimaux said she remained employed by Lakehead University during her stint as the minister’s representative, but paid back the salary for the three months she spent traveling.
“The work I did on behalf of the government was substantial and more than $100,000 was spent on travel, and covered other expenses,” she said. “For every dollar I made 50 per cent went back to Canada in taxes and I did provide the report I was asked for.”
Wesley-Esquimaux said the criticism she’s facing for the dollar figures in the contracted amounted to “lateral violence” and a waste of time.
“Our people spend far too much time on lateral violence and pulling each other down. I was always supportive of Cindy and her work, she could stand to be as gracious, including APTN. It would be more respectful to support and congratulate someone like me that has spent my entire life advocating, healing, supporting youth and being a positive force for Indigenous people,” she said. “If Cindy and her bunch would work together and stop attacking we could get a lot more done.”
A spokesperson for Bennett said the report compiled by Wesley-Esquimaux would soon be made public and that the contract followed Treasury Board rules.
“We are looking forward to releasing her report in the coming days which will go a long way in informing our work to reform the First Nations family and child services and break the cycle of removing children from their homes and communities,” said Bennett’s spokesperson James Fitzmorris.
Since the 2016 child welfare ruling, the tribunal has issued three compliance orders against the Trudeau Liberals over the slow pace of its required changes.
The Trudeau Liberals have spent at least $707,000 fighting the tribunal’s order.
The previous administration of Stephen Harper went to Federal Court in a failed bid to have the discrimination case, which was filed in 2007, dismissed.