The RM of McKillop held a special meeting on October 18th to discuss ethics complaints filed against Councillors Don Whitrow, Gary Gilbert, and Chief Administrative Officer Brandi Morissette.
The complaints were lodged over comments the three made during a discussion around recognizing the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation on September 30th.
The discussion was held in a closed session which took nearly an hour and forty minutes. The meeting minutes show CAO Morisette left the meeting for most of the discussion; however, it appears that Councillors Whitrow and Gilbert were part of the discussion involving the CAO as they didn’t leave the discussion until nearly an hour in. All three returned for the last ten minutes of the closed session.
After coming out of the closed session, Council made a motion to address the complaints at the next regular meeting on October 26th.
During the Open Forum of the October 26th meeting, ratepayer June Ledrew addressed the Council. She said that she was a Status Indian and that while the comments could’ve been more thoughtful, from her perception, she was not offended by them. She also noted that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t participate in the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. Ledrew quoted Winston Churchill and gave kudos to the Council. Ledrew also spoke about criminal harassment and how she was treated in 2018 by a councillor she didn’t name and urged the Council to stand strong.
Following the Open Forum, Reeve Bob Schmidt read a statement on behalf of staff and Council. He said, “During a brief discussion at the September 14th meeting to decide whether the RM would set the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation as a statutory holiday for staff some insensitive comments were made. Unfortunately, these comments may have detracted inadvertently from the essence of what is undoubtedly a very important day. There was no intent to diminish in any way the importance of efforts for and reflection about reconciliation. Members of Council and staff sincerely regret any unintended offence. We appreciate your understanding in this matter.”
Ratepayers Leandra and Gerry Cameron, who filed the complaints, were contacted for comment. They said they wanted the apology where people would see it, on the RM’s webpage and in the minutes. “It’s unfortunate that the apology was in the informal Reeve and Councilor forum portion of the meeting and not included on the agenda to be acknowledged formally in the meeting minutes. The word inadvertently was used in the apology which means without intention; accidentally. The willing participation regarding several comments in the Truth and Reconciliation discussion were not accidental or without intention. Accountability is still lacking.”
Laura Lodge, a Metis resident and ratepayer, commented on the apology. “Those words weren’t simply insensitive, they were ignorant, and I would even go so far as to describe them as cruel. The “apology” was back-handed and placed blame on anyone who took offence. There was no promise to do better, no steps or action described for Council and staff to do better or become educated. Just an ambiguous statement taking zero responsibility.”
LMT spoke with two survivors of the residential school system. Tony and Marcie Stevenson. The Stevenson’s call the Cote First Nation home. Tony spent ten years and Marcie 8 years at the Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School in Lebret, Saskatchewan. Tony says his work educating people in the harms and history of the residential school system started in 1998, bringing pedophiles who worked in the schools to justice. He then worked in the residential school compensation process, where survivors were compensated for the physical and sexual abuse they suffered. After the compensation process was complete, he started travelling to communities speaking to schools and groups educating people on what residential schools were about.
“The people that don’t understand what happened at residential schools and they don’t realize that there is long lasting traumas that still affect our people today. We both attended the residential school after the priests/nuns were long gone but they left their footprints of abuse on our own people.”
Stevenson said that suicides, alcoholism, the cycle of abuse, and incarceration rates are results of the trauma that continues because of the residential school system.
“There are so many misconceptions of who we are. It’s because of the myths that have been told about us; drunk, lazy, uneducated, that we get everything for free.” He explained these beliefs diminish the ability of first nations people to make meaningful partnerships and make it tougher to be socially accepted.
Stevenson said that only education can dispel these myths. “Ignorance perpetuates the hatred. Especially by adults that are teaching that to their kids. That’s the most dangerous part. It creates a dangerous environment for our first nations people because we are almost looked down on as a lower class of human being. That superior privileged attitude has to change.”
Stevenson said that even though it’s been 15 years since the former Prime Minister Stephan Harper issued an apology to the first nations people for the residential schools and, “It’s 2021 and you have a municipal government apologizing how many years later that they are sorry? I mean, they didn’t get the memo as to the damage their leaders acknowledged and apologized for? This a different country herein Saskatchewan? That lack of respect is obvious.”
Stevenson said that the apology the RM issued was downplaying what happened. “It’s meaningless, they got caught that’s the only reason why they apologized.”
Stevenson hopes there is more accountability at the RM. “I just hope they would be held accountable by an ethics committee and their only option should be to remove them from their positions.” He said the reason he said that was because “It’s has been a new practice to hold those accountable for such comments to be fired immediately as this behavior is unacceptable. Joking or not, you are in a position of trust and power. That form of mindset, attitude is dangerous to the First Nations People. To harbour and teach that mentality that your race is more superior than anyone herein Canada has to be immediately stopped and corrected. Those days are over.”
Stevenson said if he were a public leader and made fun of Remembrance Day on November 11th, his career would be over.
“There are people in that community where those guys serve that don’t think the same way they do. And I’m hoping the people that made light of this holiday, I’m hoping that their community recognizes that publicly and I don’t think that’s what they want for representation. So hopefully they lose that right to lead their community and to speak on their behalf.”
Stevenson said he plans on writing a letter to the RM. He said what he would say to them publicly is, “Your apology, coming from a residential school survivor is as meaningless as the piece of paper it’s written on. You only want to apologize because you got caught. Your actions – non designation of our holiday shows your respect of our past. I know there are people within your community that don’t share the same sentiments as you do and I’m glad for that. Those are the people I’ll gladly work with and hopefully one day I’ll get to visit and educate them because if your going to call yourself a Canadian, then you should own and learn the past of being a Canadian.”
Stevenson said he will invite the people who want to know and learn about the treaty and the real relationships of first nations people in this country to one of the presentations he hopes to arrange in a nearby community. “I’ll save seats for them, no problem.”
Councillor Howard Arndt, on the apology, “In my mind, the statement, read by Reeve Schmidt, made as a result of the official complaints received by RM Council, specific to the behaviour of some around the council table, was less than adequate given the gravity of the issue and the pain that many have and still endure as a result of the residential school system.
I am bound by my oath of confidentiality not to divulge the nature of the discussions, who said what, or the position individual councillors took during discussions and debate. However, it is well known what my position is specific to the behaviour, by some, around the council table on September 14th, 2021, and it is safe to assume that I expressed my views during the in-camera discussions. Further, I fully believe that had I not expressed my opinions in the strongest terms, there would not have been any public acknowledgement whatsoever.
I personally extend my deepest apologies for the hurt experienced as a result of the lack of sensitivity which occurred in council chambers on September 14th and then again on September 28th and with the treatment that a ratepayer received as she was expressing her disgust specific to the lack of understanding of the magnitude of hurt that some around the council table were creating by not acknowledging that their actions and comments were inappropriate.”
During the October 26th meeting Council also discussed another ethics complaint with Councillor Whitrow declaring a conflict of interest for the closed session discussion. We reached out to the RM to confirm the ethics complaint was against Councillor Whitrow and asked if it also concerned the Truth and Reconciliation discussion, and the RM has yet to respond.
*Tony Stevenson is a recipient of the Diamond Jubilee Medal for his work on the abuse awareness project and was recognized for his contribution in creating a First Nations Partnership Work Program by Saskatchewan’s Chamber of Commerce and Abex Awards.
Jennifer Argue, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Last Mountain Times