New Brunswick

Former CEO of Mi'kmaq child welfare agency alleges wrongful dismissal in civil suit

Oona Keagan, former CEO of a First Nations child protection agency, is alleging she was fired without cause on Dec. 2 after pushing back against the Mi’gmaq Child and Family Services of New Brunswick Inc. board of directors, including chair Chief George Ginnish of Eel Ground First Nation.

Oona Keagan alleges First Nations chiefs interfered with her decisions as CEO, court documents say

Oona Keagan, former CEO of Mi’gmaq Child and Family Services of New Brunswick Inc., alleges she was wrongfully dismissed from her post in a civil suit filed against the child protection agency. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

Oona Keagan, former CEO of a First Nations child protection agency, is alleging she was fired without cause on Dec. 2 after pushing back against the Mi'gmaq Child and Family Services of New Brunswick Inc. board of directors, including chair Chief George Ginnish of Eel Ground First Nation.

The child welfare agency is a not-for-profit organization created to serve seven Mi'kmaq First Nations communities in the province: Eel River Bar, Fort Folly, Indian Island, Bouctouche, Pabineau, Metepenagiag and Eel Ground.  Eel River Bar first Nation has since opted out of the program, in October 2019. The board of directors is made up of the chiefs from the communities.

It was formed seven years after a 2010 report called for First Nations child welfare reform, with a goal of keeping children in their homes and communities with their families. 

Keagan alleges the success of the agency was supposed to be based on its ability to operate free from political interference, something she says didn't happen.

Left a career in federal public service

Keagan filed a statement of claim on Jan. 3 at Moncton's Court of Queen's Bench against the agency, the board of directors and its chair. In it, she alleges she was recruited and induced to leave the federal public service, where she'd worked 15 years, to assume the role of CEO.

It also states Keagan "encountered resistance based on the political, family, personal and community interest of the Chair of the Board, Chief George Ginnish and the associated Board members," which is contrary to human resources policies of Mi'gmaq Child and Family Services.

Ginnish declined to comment while the matter was before the courts but said, "We will in due course." 

In the documents, Keagan maintains, when hired, she was assured she would be able to operate the business of MCFS without "extraneous interference" from the board of directors.

But Keagan alleges board members put pressure on her in respect to "organization of holiday time for employees, the assignment of responsibilities to employees, the appointment on merit of employees to managerial positions."

She also claims the board interfered in matters of "termination of unsatisfactorily performing employees, the transfer of employees to new positions and the exercise of institutional authority by administrators within the organization."

Chief George Ginnish of Eel Ground First Nation was named among the defendants in the suit. (Hadeel Ibrahim, CBC)

None of these allegations have been proven in court.

Keagan alleges the welfare agency is operating without a CEO. Messages left by the CBC News at the agency's office in Buctouche First Nation were not returned. 

Bernard Richard, former New Brunswick child and youth advocate who returned to the province after acting as a representative for children and youth in British Columbia in 2018, is mentioned in the court documents.

Bernard Richard, former New Brunswick child and youth advocate, serves as an adviser to the board of directors.

Keagan lists Richard, whom she sometimes worked with, as an adviser to the board of directors. 

Richard told CBC News that as an adviser to the board, he isn't in a position to comment.

Keagan was hired at an annual salary of $101,195. No dollar amount is listed in the documents, but Keagan is asking to be reinstated as CEO, for an order for interim costs such as legal fees, and for "other relief as may be just, requisite or desirable."

Halifax lawyers Blair Mitchell and Kim O'Hara are representing Keagan. Mitchell told CBC News his client won't be commenting at this time.