Carolyn Bennett failed to disclose conflict of interest during treaty settlement negotiations

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett failed to disclose a conflict of interest to the Privy Council during treaty talks and settlement negotiations with seven Anishinaabe communities in Southern Ontario, a First Nations member alleges.

John Hawke is a community member of Chimnissing Anishinabek (Beausoleil First Nation) located 175 km north of Toronto, and he has been in contact with the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner of Canada.

During negotiations over the 2018 Williams Treaties Settlement Agreement, neither Bennett nor former Finance Minister Bill Morneau disclosed their ownership of cottage properties located inside the 50,000 acres of wilderness that was under claim.

“They [Bennett and Morneau] each have property within a 50,000 acre tract of land of our traditional territory where indigenous title was extinguished in the 2018 Settlement Agreement,” Hawke explains. “It is integral to know if they declared a conflict of interest in cabinet before their government signed off on this agreement.”

Hawke feels that concealing such information defrauded the community, and may have violated federal ethics laws.

The Chippewa Tri Council (Beausoleil, Rama and Georgina Island First Nations) alleged that a 50,000 acre tract in Simcoe County was not included in the Penetanguishene Treaty of 1798 and remained sovereign land. However, in 1811 the tract was taken without consent.

The matter was submitted as a claim in 1986 and 1990 — which the Court of Claims rejected. But the claim was recently included with others in the 2018 Williams Treaties Settlement Agreement, which dealt with unrelated issues like off-reserve hunting and harvesting rights.

Hawke feels this needed to be a stand alone claim, and wonders if the two senior cabinet ministers inserted the otherwise unrelated claim into the broader settlement agreement to personally benefit from the resulting gains in the value of their properties.

“Injustices in the pre-confederation treaties such as the 1798 Penetang Purchase, where these grievances have been amalgamated with the separate issue of our northern hunting grounds and harvesting rights, has allowed Canada again to provide a flawed agreement with unfair compensation, when indigenous title is never to be extinguished,” he explains.

Section 44 of the Conflict of Interest Act provides that only a Member of the Senate or House of Commons may request, in certain circumstances, that the Commissioner examines a matter.  Section 45, however, provides that the Commissioner may examine a matter on his own initiative if he has reason to believe that a public office holder has contravened the Act.

Phillipe Joly, a special advisor to the Commissioner, has been corresponding with Hawke and informed him that Commissioner Mario Dion asked him to investigate the claims to determine whether there is reason to launch a fulsome investigation. Hawke believes that a contravention of the Act has occurred and has provided information for their review.

Members of a First Nations community in Ontario are wondering whether a largely unrelated land claim was included in a broader Settlement Agreement because at least two federal ministers owned property that was under dispute. They say the claim in question should have stood alone and they don’t understand why the Minister in charge of the negotiations didn’t disclose her conflict of interest at the time.

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