Toxic workplace allegations at the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake
By Marisela Amador, The Eastern Door
On Aug. 8, an altercation took place at the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) that left chief Denise David injured and bruised.
The shocking claim comes after months of infighting between the chiefs, which at times has spilled into the public forum at community meetings.
David’s allegation has been corroborated by chiefs Brant Etienne and Amy Beauvais, who were both part of the confrontation that also involved grand chief Victor Bonspille and his sister Valerie Bonspille.
“Bottom line is I got injured, and that should never have happened. I want the community to know. Yes, it’s really bad at the band office. Yes, it’s gotten really bad to the point that physical harm was done to another chief by a chief,” said David.
David, Etienne and Beauvais told The Eastern Door that this was not an isolated event.
Yelling, screaming and demeaning comments
The chiefs described a toxic workplace environment filled with hostility and multiple incidents of yelling, screaming, demeaning comments and harassment that have now escalated to physical violence.
“But not only that, we also put a mental strain on our employees because this incident happened in front of employees and could be heard throughout the whole building,” she said.
The Eastern Door contacted chief Valerie, but she declined to comment. The grand chief did not respond to a statement request.
According to all three chiefs, an argument broke out regarding portfolio assignments that stem from changes the grand chief made following the distribution of COVID-19 business relief funds without his approval back in March.
“I think it just started off with raised voices, and then it went to yelling, and then it went to screaming. And a lot of swear words, a lot of back and forth,” said David.
“All I remember is that when Victor told (Valerie) to leave, she turned towards another chief who was in front of me and started with her chest up going at him and yelling at him. But I ended up putting my arm in front of him and moving him back, and then Victor took her out the door.”
David recounted that Valerie was still screaming and hurling insults at the male chief and continued displaying aggressive behaviour towards him.
She said that the grand chief and another person grabbed chief Valerie to “finally make her stop.”
David said that she immediately knew she had gotten injured during the scuffle because she was in pain.
“I looked behind to see where the other two chiefs were, they are the younger ones on the Council, and they’re always being attacked verbally and mentally,” said David.
HR summoned for help
“I even ran downstairs and had our Human Resource person come upstairs because our employees were there and heard everything. They should not have to be put through that. They should not have to see their government body act in that way. That was so disrespectful.”
Following the confrontation, David went to the Kanesatake Health Center to consult for her injury, first by a nurse and then by a doctor.
She said that she currently still feels pain in her shoulder.
“I feel anger, disappointment, sadness. I thought we were going to be a Council that was going to be different than others,” she said.
“Yet they continue to bring whatever they had, their garbage from being on Council before. And we have nothing to do with that. And so I feel betrayed.”
Toll on mental health
The altercation has taken a heavy toll on David’s mental health and that of her family, who were left appalled after seeing her bruises.
“Jayda, who is 14, would stay up and wait for me to fall asleep. And she would stay up to be on guard,” said David.
“And if I woke up at two o’clock in the morning, she would still be up. I noticed there was a pattern that was starting there. She was staying up almost every night. And I said, `No, no, no, no.’ I said, `Don’t worry, don’t worry.”’
David also went to the Surete du Quebec and filed a police report with Guillaume Belisle, the SQ Indigenous liaison officer at the station.
The Eastern Door contacted Belisle, who said that he was not authorized to talk to the media. The SQ medial relation line said that they could not confirm the status of a file.
“He (Belisle) told her, `You know, Valerie, this is very serious. Denise has enough evidence to charge you with assault.’ And I told her, ‘it’s on hold.’ The file is open. I gave them two weeks.”
David explained that she gave Victor and Valerie an ultimatum to bring in a mediator by September 1, or she would officially file charges against Valerie.
According to Etienne, the mediator was supposed to arrive at Council last Friday but never showed up. As of Wednesday night David said that she had not heard from the mediator and planned on pursuing the charges.
Additionally, she said that chief Valerie apologized to her following the altercation, but she did not believe it was sincere.
“I told her, `you and Victor have acted in the most unprofessional, unethical, immoral way. I am so disgusted with you two.’ And I am still disgusted. I am especially disgusted with the grand chief and his behaviour,” said David.
Since the incident, Etienne said that he has mostly tried to minimize his interactions with the grand chief and chief Valerie. He believes that it is the only way to avoid another confrontation.
“That last blow-up where Denise got injured was like a good 45-minutes. And that was a lot. That was a lot of harassment, abuse, intimidation, all that stuff,” said Etienne.
“But it’s been going on for a long time,” he continued. “Everything’s been getting worse and worse.”
“But to this point where it got, you know, she was literally going berserk and ended up hurting Denise, that was ridiculous. That was a whole other level,” he continued.
Etienne said that he is surprised none of the MCK employees have quit and believes that action must be taken to protect them from this toxic work environment.
“At least for Denise, Amy, John (Canatonquin) and I, we’re trying to get our work done. Stuff is chugging along a bit more, maybe a bit slower, but it’s chugging along. We still have our responsibilities to do. We’re still accountable to the community,” he said.
Etienne said that he has often been the victim of verbal abuse by the grand chief and his sister and thinks that he was targeted because he has been vocal in his opposition to some of the grand chief’s requests.
“He wasn’t going after John. He was going after Amy a bit. But it wasn’t the same level. It wasn’t the same personal attacks and belittlement and harassment. It wasn’t the instigating, trying to literally start a fight with me,” he explained.
“Now that other people are finally starting to see it, like dammit, okay, finally it’s not just me. Like it’s not just in my head. It’s not like I’m the freaking instigator that should be abused.” Chief Beauvais said that prior to the altercation, she had also requested a mediator on multiple occasions.
She also claimed that on one specific occasion, she was threatened at Council, and when she went to Human Resources, they told her there was nothing she could do.
“The environment has been very toxic. And I’m suffering from some physical ailments because of how toxic it is,” she said.
The three chiefs insist that they have tried to work with the grand chief and chief Valerie but that when it comes to certain issues, it is almost impossible.
“I’m fed up. I’m really totally fed up with the behaviours. How can he go around thumping his chest as the grand chief, yelling at the chiefs? They don’t know nothing. When he should not even be yelling, he should be teaching by example,” said David.
“He is not the ultimate authority in Council. Yes, he oversees all the portfolios. However, he never sits in any of the meetings of all the portfolios. Instead, he sits in his office.”
David said that she has had to apologize again to MCK employees for the violence they witnessed. She also requested that Human Resources bring in a counsellor to make sure that the employees get the support that they need.
“Them hearing this and then witnessing and then seeing the bruises on my arm of what happened was enough. They don’t feel safe,” she said.
Etienne said that the bullying and toxic environment at Council have also affected him and, at times, have almost driven him to lash out.
“I have blown my cool a few times. I’ve gotten mad, raised my voice and everything like that. But you know what, after months of this? this isn’t isolated incidents. This is intentional, coordinated stuff. It definitely feels like they are trying to drive us out at times.
“They’re trying to make it so toxic that we give up so that they have the power in their own hands. I am not going to step aside. I’m here to do the best I can for the community. That’s what I’m going to do no matter what,” he said.
David said that she decided to speak out because she is an advocate against bullying and any kind of violence, whether it be verbal, psychological or physical.
“If I don’t stand up to what has been done in the office, as government officials, in front of our employees, when I’ve spoken out at public meetings against bullying, and how it’s going on in the community, and it’s trickling down in the schools, and now it’s at Council? If I don’t do nothing or say nothing, then what is going to happen?” she said.
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