A group of residential school survivors is joining the Ontario New Democratic Party in calling for Greg Rickford to be removed from his role as Indigenous Affairs minister, saying they don't trust him to work toward reconciliation or handle sensitive issues like the search for the remains of missing Indigenous children.
The group says their distrust stems from a legal settlement made 16 years ago that Rickford signed on behalf of the law firm where he was working. That firm, Keshen and Major, was representing several residential school survivors.
The settlement led to complaints from a dozen survivors over how the resulting compensation was handled — including allegations money was taken from survivors by one of the other lawyers at the firm, Doug Keshen.
While it was Keshen, not Rickford, who was accused of wrongdoing, Garnet Angeconeb, an advocate and residential school survivor from Lac Seul First Nation, wrote in a statement released Friday by the NDP that Rickford was part of the "machine" of Keshen and Major — a law firm that left survivors feeling "hurt, betrayed and taken advantage of."
The NDP also acknowledges the claims against Keshen have not been proved by a Law Society of Ontario tribunal. Keshen himself has denied any wrongdoing
The provincial government told CBC News in an email it will not move him out of his role. Spokesperson Ivana Yelich wrote that Rickford is "decades removed from the events that were complained about.
"Every single allegation against the member of this law firm were withdrawn or dismissed. Any inferences to the minister and these allegations are completely false," she wrote.
The call for Rickford to step aside comes as Ontario's residential schools are being investigated on a number of fronts, including: searches for graves, reviews of death investigations by a team appointed by Ontario's chief coroner, and through the release of some 1,800 death registrations by the province.
Edmund Metatawabin is among those who wants to see Rickford leave his portfolio.
"Representing people demands good character, integrity, honesty," Metatawabin, a residential school survivor and the former Chief of Fort Albany First Nation, said at a news conference called by the NDP on Friday.
MPP Sol Mamakwa, the NDP's critic for Indigenous and treaty relations, also said Rickford is not the right person to lead this work.
"Every time we hear Mr. Rickford talk about residential schools, the search for our missing children, or the crimes of the past, we are re-traumatized," he said.
"He must go."
Rickford signed agreement 3 years before election
In 2005, Rickford signed Canada's Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement on behalf of his law firm at the time and before he ran for office. He is currently the MPP for Kenora-Rainy River and is also the Ford government's minister of northern development, mines, natural resources and forestry.
In the aftermath, Keshen was accused by more than a dozen residential school survivors of mishandling their claims. Hearings into the allegations were held by a Law Society of Ontario tribunal but no decision was made.
Instead, Keshen and the society agreed in 2017 to participate in a separate process called an Invitation to Attend and to have Keshen's work regularly reviewed, a conclusion that left some survivors seeking a federal review of what happened.