The Liberal candidate running in The Pas, Tyler Duncan, was terminated from his position with Norway House Cree Nation (NHCN) because of the time it would take to run his campaign.
Both Duncan and his now-former employer agree on that much.
At a meeting between the two at NHCN's Winnipeg sub-office on Jan. 14, Duncan said he was expecting Norway House Chief Ron Evans to endorse his candidacy in the April provincial election.
Duncan had been announced as the Liberal candidate two days prior.
'The real heart of the story is that this is a bright young leader in an area with no resources and for his choice to run in politics, his leader and his employer fired him and that's wrong.' - Noel Bernier, Manitoba Liberal's Director of Northern and Indigenous Caucus
"It was to my knowledge that I was going there to accept an endorsement, to accept support from my community leader," Duncan said. "In this meeting he verbally attacked me and indicated to me that he would be supporting the NDP and on my way out handed me a letter releasing me from any services with NHCN; essentially firing me and letting me go when I need the income most."
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In the termination letter Duncan was handed at the end of that meeting, the director of planning and policy development for the reserve, Debbie Burka, wrote that during a phone conversation the day earlier Duncan agreed that due to the time required to run an effective campaign he would be unable to complete his contract with NHCN.
"I in no way agreed to sever my contract," Duncan said reflecting back on the phone conversation. "What I had thought we were discussing was that she was going to give me some time off to run my campaign."
Duncan started the temporary contract in November 2015 to work on developing a housing strategy to present to the federal government to address the overcrowding housing crisis in NHCN.
The contract was to go until April 2016 with the chance to renew, Duncan said.
He was given the termination letter in January, but didn't contact media about the issue until March.
"I wanted to let it go," he said. "Upon meeting with a lot of my mentors, the conclusion was to sit back and allow a leader to act this way, to treat people like this, to treat me like this, is setting precedent that it's OK to treat people like this, it is OK to fire people for standing up for what they believe in, it's OK to attack our own people when our own people are finally getting engaged in provincial and federal politics."
Employer must grant leave, says Elections Manitoba
Duncan said his contract stipulated that he could be released at any time for any reason, and he didn't have the time or interest in fighting it further.
"Legally I didn't have a leg to stand on. Ethically, it's wrong," he said.
Section 14 of The Elections Act states, "To permit citizen participation in the democratic process, every employer must, if requested, grant a leave without pay to an employee who is a candidate."
The candidate must apply for the leave in writing, something Duncan said he was prepared to do, but since he had just announced his candidacy two days prior, he had not done yet.
Duncan said he was led to believe not only would he be granted leave, but that his chief and council would support his election run.
"All of a sudden when I was meeting with [Ron Evans] his attitude had changed. He was suddenly anti-me and anti-Liberal everything, having been a federal Liberal candidate. It was very unexpected," Duncan said.
'I would never do that, that's just not right,' Chief Evans says
The Norway House Chief ran and lost for the Liberals federally in the Churchill riding in 2004. He ran for the Liberal nomination in the 2000 election, but lost.
Prior to that, Evans ran and lost as the Progressive Conservative candidate for The Pas in the 1999 provincial election.
Evans denied that he fired Duncan for his political affiliation.
"I would never do that, that's just not right," Evans said. "He wasn't doing the work that was required of him. … He was more interested in meeting with the Liberals and wanting to run and then he just wanted to get compensated. We couldn't have him on payroll and have him running at the same time."
Evans said he has not endorsed any candidate in the 2016 provincial election.
He said despite what The Elections Act says, contract workers are a different matter.
"There's a difference between an employee and one that's under contract. He wasn't focused on the work and fulfilling his contract. We weren't getting the results we were looking for," he said.
"If it's an issue then he should take it to the labour board, I mean, if he feels there's something unjust about it."
A spokesperson for Elections Manitoba said the terms "employer" and "employee" are not defined in the act.
"The redress available to individuals feeling aggrieved by what they perceive to be any employment-related action taken against them is by way of personal complaint to the Manitoba Labour Board," said Alison Mitchell with Elections Manitoba in a statement.
The Manitoba Labour Board was not able to provide clarity on the distinction between what would and would not be considered an employee.
Liberals accuse chief of ethical lapse
The Liberal's Director of its Northern and Indigenous Caucus, Noel Bernier, was present at the Jan. 14 meeting between Duncan and Evans.
Bernier said Evans made it clear he didn't support Duncan's party affiliation, however he said the bigger problem was that the chief was potentially stifling a community member's engagement in politics.
"Let's push all that partisan stuff aside. The real heart of the story is that this is a bright young leader in an area with no resources and for his choice to run in politics, his leader and his employer fired him and that's wrong," said Bernier.
At the age of 19, Duncan is among the youngest candidates of any party seeking a seat in the provincial legislature.
In March 2015, Duncan ran unsuccessfully for NDP president last March.
Three months later he tried to be the grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), but lost that election to former-broadcaster Sheila North Wilson.
Duncan has held three terms as youth chief of Norway House Cree Nation and one term as youth grand chief for MKO youth council.