CBRM mayor's Indigenous adviser quits in difference of opinion over job duties

Tanya Johnson-MacVicar quit her job as L'nu adviser to the mayor of Cape Breton Regional Municipality, saying she was being prevented from discussing reconciliation with officials. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)
Tanya Johnson-MacVicar quit her job as L'nu adviser to the mayor of Cape Breton Regional Municipality, saying she was being prevented from discussing reconciliation with officials. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)

The Indigenous adviser to Cape Breton Regional Municipality's mayor quit after spending about one year in the position.

Tanya Johnson-MacVicar said the job had become symbolic and she was being prevented from enacting true reconciliation in Nova Scotia's second-largest municipality, but the mayor says that's not true.

"Jan. 9th I became a token Indian. Jan. 10th I gave my resignation," Johnson-MacVicar said.

The former adviser said she accomplished some good during her short tenure as the mayor's Indigenous adviser, but several incidents showed her it would be a challenge.

"The first day I was there, I had somebody take me around and I'm a smoker, so we went out to the smoking area and she introduced herself as 'Smokahontas' and I thought wow, we have a lot of work to do in this place," Johnson-MacVicar said.

The job title was L'nu adviser. L'nu is a Mi'kmaw word meaning "the people" that is often used by Mi'kmaw people to describe themselves.

Hired to act as liaison and to provide education

Johnson-MacVicar was hired early in 2022, despite some initial hesitation from councillors when the position was created a year earlier.

The former adviser said her job was to act as a liaison between CBRM and the thousands of Mi'kmaq living within the municipality's boundaries and to provide education on the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission's recommendations.

Several interactions with municipal officials left her feeling it was going to be hard work, but Johnson-MacVicar said it all came to a head early this year.

"I resigned in January because I became a token Indian," she said.

"The work I was supposed to do there for reconciliation, I wasn't allowed to do that work anymore. It was almost like it was being picked and chosen for what I could and couldn't do and that's not why I signed up for it so that's why I left."

Johnson-MacVicar said the last straw followed a confrontation with the general manager of CBRM's Port of Sydney Development Corporation in December after she heard Mi'kmaw elders were being searched during an event at the port's marine terminal.

Johnson-MacVicar said that is disrespectful, so she tried to get the manager to agree to a talking circle with Mi'kmaw elders and the port's security staff.

Matthew Moore/CBC
Matthew Moore/CBC

However, she said port manager Paul Carrigan refused to listen.

Carrigan declined to comment on the incident.

Johnson-MacVicar said after she brought it up with her boss, Mayor Amanda McDougall refused to back her up.

"The mayor said I had put a black stain on the mayor's office and I told her you'll never have to worry about that ever again."

McDougall said Johnson-MacVicar's story is not true and the former adviser left on good terms.

Matthew Moore/CBC
Matthew Moore/CBC

"We actually had a really great relationship, learned a tremendous amount and even with her departure from the position, she was really grateful, putting in writing that she was really grateful for the opportunity to be in this office, but thought her skills were better used elsewhere," McDougall said.

The mayor said she never called Johnson-MacVicar's actions a "black stain" on her office and said there is no question the former adviser had a positive impact in the position.

There are red dresses hanging in front of city hall recognizing murdered and missing Indigenous women. In addition, staff and some members of council took part in a blanket exercise that helps people understand how colonization moved Indigenous people off their traditional lands.

"None of that would have happened without this position here," McDougall said.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

But the adviser exceeded her jurisdiction by trying to talk about reconciliation to the port, which is owned by CBRM, but its staff and operations are not controlled by the municipality, the mayor said.

She said Johnson-MacVicar's interaction with the port manager was out of line.

"That was something she did on her own, but unfortunately there was a professional decision that was made that implicated my office," McDougall said.

The mayor said she still thinks the position is important, but it hasn't been filled because CBRM will be issuing a request for proposals to hire an organization that can provide advice on a variety of services, including internal policies, education and cultural learning.

"I don't look at it as replacing a person," McDougall said. "We are growing this role into something that is going to be more lasting."