Indigenous

Former rep for First Nations child welfare lashes back at MP's criticism of $437K contract

The former federal ministerial representative on First Nation child welfare reform is lashing out at an NDP MP for suggesting the nearly half-million dollar contract she received would have been better spent on the system she was appointed to study.

NDP MP accused of 'lateral violence' by former ministerial representative

Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, vice-provost of Aboriginal initiatives at Lakehead University, says NDP MP Charlie Angus is trying to score 'political points' by questioning the $437,000 contract she received. (CBC)

The former federal ministerial representative on First Nation child welfare reform is lashing out at an NDP MP for suggesting the nearly half-million dollar contract she received would have been better spent on the system she was appointed to study.

Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, a former federal Liberal candidate in 2011, was appointed by the Trudeau government in August 2016 to conduct cross-country consultations on reforming on-reserve First Nation child welfare services.

She was given a $437,000 contract to do eight months of work, according to documents obtained through the Access to Information Act by NDP MP Charlie Angus, who released them to the media.

Angus is the NDP critic for Indigenous youth issues and represents the riding of Timmins-James Bay, which includes Attawapiskat, one of the poorest First Nations in the country.

Angus criticized the lucrative contract and suggested Wesley-Esquimaux was chosen for the role because of her well-known friendship with Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett. Wesley-Esquimaux was the co-MC for an event celebrating the 20th anniversary of Bennett's election as a Toronto MP this past summer.

Wesley-Esquimaux took Angus's criticism personally and fired off a letter last week accusing him of committing an act of "lateral violence" against her. She accused Angus using the poverty afflicting many Indigenous people for his "own selfish reasons" and to score "political points."

The letter said she didn't "appreciate" Angus suggesting her "friendship" with Bennett, who made the appointment, was the only reason she was given the role of ministerial representative. Wesley-Esquimaux wrote she was "eminently qualified" to do the work. She wrote that Angus should instead be "lifting and congratulating" her for overcoming poverty to become successful and "not shooting" her down. 

"Unless an Indigenous person is poor, helpless, living on welfare or on a reserve so you can point to them for political points and your own selfish reasons ... we are not worthy of your time and respect," wrote Wesley-Esquimaux, in the missive which was written on Lakehead University letterhead.

Lakehead chair on Truth and Reconciliation

Wesley-Esquimaux is currently Lakehead University's chair on truth and reconciliation.

Wesley-Esquimaux wrote that Angus's actions upset her children, family, colleagues, "many Indigenous people across Canada" and Lakehead University's board of governors.

The letter was copied to NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.

In an emailed statement sent to CBC News on Friday, Wesley-Esquimaux said the letter was "a personal communication" to Angus and did not represent the views of the university. 

"I believe an apology (from Angus) would have been far more appropriate," she said, in the statement.

University distances itself from letter

CBC News contacted the office of Lakehead University president Brian Stevenson, along with the two board vice-chairs, seeking comment.

Lakehead University in Thunder Bay has distanced itself from Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux's letter. She is the university's chair for truth and reconciliation.

The Thunder Bay university's media relations department sent a statement saying the views in the letter "are not shared on behalf of Lakehead University administration, nor its board of governors."  ​

Angus sent Wesley-Esquimaux a letter in response, saying his criticism was aimed at pressuring the government into doing the right thing with on-reserve child welfare reform.

In an interview Friday, Angus said he was not "interested" in responding to Wesley-Esquimaux's personal attack.

"Her role in this process is a fair investigation on the part of the opposition," he said.

NDP MP Charlie Angus says Wesley-Esquimaux's contract should be open to examination. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Wesley-Esquimaux was hired as a ministerial representative in response to the January 2016 Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that found Canada discriminated against First Nation children by underfunding child welfare services on-reserve. The tribunal ordered an immediate increase in funding and an overhaul of the child welfare system.

The federal government has been hit with three compliance orders from the tribunal over its failure to immediately implement the changes prescribed by the human rights ruling. Ottawa has spent $707,000 in legal fees in litigation since the ruling. The federal government has since gone to the Federal Court seeking clarification on a portion of a subsequent ruling issued by the human rights tribunal in May.

Wesley-Esquimaux submitted a report based on her consultations in September. She recommended the creation of an "Indigenous ombudsman for child and family well-being" or a northern child advocate.

Singh's office did not return a request for comment on Wesley-Esquimaux's letter. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's investigative unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him jorge.barrera@cbc.ca.

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