A First Nation that has been living under a boil-water advisory for 25 years is asking Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller to launch an investigation into his top Ontario bureaucrat’s behaviour and the provincial office’s management.

Anne Scotton was replaced as the top department bureaucrat working with Neskantaga First Nation on its current state of emergency after Chief Chris Moonias called for her immediate resignation, citing an irrevocable loss of trust.

On Monday, the department’s senior assistant deputy minister Lynda Clairmont replaced Scotton on the file with assistant deputy minister Joanne Wilkinson, but Moonias said he isn’t satisfied.

“It is with great disappointment that I reach out to you today,” Moonias wrote in an email to Miller obtained by CBC News Thursday.

“ISC [Indigenous Services Canada] seems to be operating as intended, to keep Indigenous people and Nations under control by supporting individuals in positions of power who perpetuate paternalism and colonial ideals … It is in good faith that we expect you will actively pursue an investigation into our concerns with the Ontario RDG [regional director general] and the management of ISCs [Indigenous Services Canada’s] Ontario region.”

Wilkinson was the Ontario regional director general under former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper’s government and was tasked with implementing third-party management on First Nations to handle their finances when they are deep in debt.

Neskantaga gaining support

Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation Chief Donny Morris also emailed Miller today supporting Neskantaga’s call.

“The regional director general has failed in her responsibility to Neskantaga and the officials of the Ontario region share in this responsibility,” Morris wrote in an email obtained by CBC News.

“We urge you to to direct that an immediate independent investigation be launched into the role of the regional director general and the Ontario region in the Neskantaga water crisis, and that the regional director general be placed on administrative leave during the course of the investigation.”

First Nation asks Indigenous Services minister to launch investigation into top bureaucrat's behaviour
Neskantaga First Nation Chief Chris Moonias wants Indigenous Services Canada to launch an investigation of its Ontario operations. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for Miller repeated a previous statement that all staffing decisions involving departmental employees, including Scotton, are under the authority of the deputy minister.

“Our top priority is the safety and security of the members of Neskantaga and we are committed to work with the community to that end,” a spokesperson wrote.

“The independence of the Public Services is essential to ensuring an ethical and well-functioning government.”

Relationship with First Nations has to be respectful

Neskantaga, a fly-in community about 450 km north of Thunder Bay, Ont., 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.

During the 2015 federal election campaign, then-Liberal leader Justin Trudeau promised to lift all long-term boil water advisories on reserves within five years of coming to power. That same day, Neskantaga’s chief made a public appeal to all party leaders to personally intervene on the issue, if elected.

Upgrades to the plant were supposed to be completed in 2018, but the project faced numerous delays and the work isn’t complete yet.

First Nation asks Indigenous Services minister to launch investigation into top bureaucrat's behaviour
A sign in Neskantaga First Nation calls out Prime Minister over his promise to end the community’s long-term boil water advisory. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Nearly all of Neskantaga’s 300 members moved temporarily to a Thunder Bay hotel last month after an oily substance was discovered in the community’s reservoir and running water was cut off.

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.

Moonias said Scotton “disregarded safety concerns” during his first call to the department about evacuating the community.

The federal government has since rented all the rooms at the Victoria Inn Hotel for the community, creating a lockdown bubble to protect them from COVID-19. 

First Nation asks Indigenous Services minister to launch investigation into top bureaucrat's behaviour
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said he’s heard complaints from chiefs about Anne Scotton, the Ontario regional director general of Indigenous Services Canada. (Marc Doucette/CBC)

The grand chief for Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nations in northern Ontario, said he’s heard complaints from other chiefs about Scotton and suggested federal officials need to reconsider her role as regional director general.

“For anyone to interact, to work effectively with our leadership, it has to be respectful,” Nishnawbe Aski Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said.

“I would just ask, I would just say this to the senior people above her, that they need to really take the time to listen to chiefs. Not just Chief Moonias, but other chiefs who have expressed concerns in the past. To look at all those facts and to make a determination if Anne Scotton is the ideal person to carry on this role as the most senior official for this region moving forward.”

Neskantaga’s call for Scotton’s removal came after Miller overruled her framing of an investigation into the community’s water crisis.

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. The investigation could extend to other communities.

First Nation asks Indigenous Services minister to launch investigation into top bureaucrat's behaviour
The road leading to Neskantaga First Nation’s water treatment plant. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Scotton emailed Moonias the draft terms of reference for the probe last week, 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 Miller made to Moonias to co-develop the terms of the investigation with the chief and council. 

After learning of the contents of Scotton’s email, Miller emailed Moonias 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.

“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 last week.

“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.”

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