Ottawa replaces federal bureaucrat working with Neskantaga First Nation during state of emergency

At the community's request, Indigenous Services Canada has replaced the top federal bureaucrat working with Neskantaga First Nation during its current state of emergency.

Chief demanded resignation of Anne Scotton, accused her of 'paternalism' and 'mirroring colonialist values'

Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias demanded the resignation of Anne Scotton, the federal bureaucrat charged with helping set the terms of an investigation into the business practices of contractors hired to address the First Nation's longstanding boil water advisory. Moonais said Scotton's framing of the investigation contradicted the commitment by Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller to co-develop the terms of the investigation with the chief and council.  (Marc Doucette/CBC)

At the community's request, Indigenous Services Canada has replaced the top federal bureaucrat working with Neskantaga First Nation during its current state of emergency.

Assistant deputy minister Joanne Wilkinson has taken over from Ontario regional director general Anne Scotton as the liaison between department officials and Neskantaga — a fly-in community about 450 km north of Thunder Bay, Ont., that has been under a boil-water advisory for 25 years.

"Joanne has significant experience in regional operations and is well placed to leverage the resources necessary to complete this work," senior assistant deputy minister Lynda Clairmont wrote in an email to Chief Chris Moonias late Monday.

"Please know that the entire department remains committed to reconciliation and to the transformative work that we are jointly called upon to do to ensure the health and safety of all Indigenous peoples."

The chief and council of Neskantaga sent an email to Clairmont on Monday morning calling for the immediate resignation of Scotton, citing an irrevocable loss of trust. 

In the email, Moonias accused Scotton of conducting her work counter to the basic principles of reconciliation. 

"Instead of working to renew any sort of respectful relationship with Indigenous people, Ms. Scotton has demonstrated paternalism in her work, mirroring colonialist values rather than reconciliation, and her involvement is causing continued harm to our people," wrote Moonias in an email obtained by CBC News.

"With the impact of Ms. Scotton's behaviour building, it is with extreme prudence that we write to you today to demand the immediate resignation of regional director general Anne Scotton."

Neskantaga has been on a long-term drinking water advisory since 1995 — two years after a newly constructed water treatment plant failed to provide clean drinking water.

The First Nation's call for Scotton's removal came four days after Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller overruled her framing of an investigation into the water crisis in Neskantaga.

Authority lies with deputy minister, minister's office says

At the chief's request, the department announced a third-party investigation two weeks ago into the business practices of consultants and engineering companies hired to end Neskantaga's boil water advisory, which could extend to other communities.

Scotton emailed Moonias the draft terms of reference for the probe on Thursday afternoon with a line in the attached document for the chief's signature. She also informed the chief that the consulting firm MNP had been selected as the third party investigator — the same company that used to be Neskantaga's third-party manager. 

Scotton's message contradicted a commitment Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller made to Moonias to co-develop the terms of the investigation with the chief and council. 

"After our most recent experience with Ms. Scotton, our tolerance for her behaviour and disrespect for our nation has run its course," Moonias wrote in an email to Clairmont.

"She dismissed the community's right to participate and took full control of the process. She unilaterally determined it best to hire an investigator who was not impartial. An investigator with a well-known, long-term and problematic relationship with the community."

Scotton, left, pictured with Ava Hill, right, former chief of Six Nations of the Grand River, will be replaced by assistant deputy minister of Indigenous Services Joanne Wilkinson. (Twitter/Anne Scotton)

CBC News has reached out to Scotton for comment but has not heard back. Scotton will remain in her job as Ontario regional director for Indigenous Services Canada, but she will not work with Neskantaga on its water emergency going forward.

In an email statement, Miller's office wrote the department's priority is the health and well-being of Neskantaga's members.

"The independence of the public services is essential to ensuring an ethical and well-functioning government," a spokesperson wrote.

"Departmental employees, and all staffing decisions, including this one, are under the authority of the deputy minister."

NDP MP Charlie Angus called the response from Miller's office "totally bogus" and said it's the minister's job to re-establish trust.

"To call for the resignation of the regional director general, I think, is almost unprecedented, but it shows just how politically toxic the Neskantaga issue has become," Angus said.

"I think that given how this file has been handled, Ms. Scotton should not be the one making the decisions on negotiating with Neskantaga. I think the minister needs to take this on as a political issue. This is something that is embarrassing the whole country."

'Disregarded safety concerns'

After learning of the contents of Scotton's email, Miller emailed Moonias on Thursday evening to reverse her decision to choose MNP as the third-party investigator and state that the terms of reference will be co-developed with the community.

According to documents obtained through the information access law, MNP was paid $200,000 by the First Nation each year for the 16 years it managed Neskantaga's finances.

Miller reaffirmed his commitment to working with chief and council during the question and answer session of last Friday's press conference. 

"The job that Anne Scotton occupies is perhaps one of the most difficult in Indigenous Services Canada and she does great work, but what she reflected to the chief was not the reflection of the conversation. So it was right in that case to send my regrets to the chief that this was not something that should have been sent," Miller said.

"We'll be working with him in terms of elaborating the terms of reference of the investigation, as it is enlarged to other communities. And critical to that is having their input."

NDP MP Charlie Angus urges Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller to re-establish trust with Neskantaga First Nation, a fly-in community about 450 km north of Thunder Bay, Ont. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In his letter to Clairmont, Moonias said Neskantaga's leadership has been belittled by Scotton over the last few weeks. Moonias said it started with his first call to the government about evacuating the community after an oily substance was discovered in the community's reservoir on Oct. 19 and running water was cut off. 

Moonias said Scotton "disregarded safety concerns."

Nearly all of Neskantaga's 300 members have since temporarily moved to a Thunder Bay hotel.

Indigenous Services Canada said the substance is a non-toxic mineral oil coming from a distribution pump in the reservoir and repairs should be completed soon.

"It is next to impossible to continue forward and in a good way," Moonias wrote. "Unfortunately, this is only one example in a long history of such behaviour."

Last year, Neskantaga declared a state of emergency after the community's water supply had to be shut off due to another pipe failure.

During a conference call on Sept. 14, 2019, Scotton told Moonias the federal government would not fund an evacuation and the problem did not qualify as an emergency, according to a recording obtained by CBC News. The comment led to a heated exchange between Moonias and Scotton.

"It's your infrastructure that's failing us right now," Moonias said. "It's your design that's doing it ... and you're not going to help us?"

Scotton said the department was doing its best to respond, but the situation didn't call for evacuation.

"I don't mean in any way to belittle the issue," Scotton said. "But flushing toilets is not an emergency situation."


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.