Council clerk – or former Council clerk, depending on whom you ask – Karen Heidinger, wife of Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) grand chief Victor Bonspille, is still coming to work after being terminated by a majority of MCK chiefs.
The group of chiefs, which includes all but Bonspille and his sister, chief Valerie Bonspille, have twice attempted to fire Heidinger, first with a signed letter on September 16 and again on October 4, this time with a Band Council Resolution (BCR).
“We cannot physically kick her out. We don’t want trouble. So I don’t know what to do,” said MCK chief John Canatonquin.
The saga mirrors the situation surrounding the ostensibly postponed September 24 by-election, which was called off by grand chief Bonspille, who attributed the decision to the appeals board and derided Council’s attempts to restart the process as illegitimate.
According to Canatonquin and fellow MCK chief Brant Etienne, Heidinger has been insubordinate in her role as Council clerk and a hostile presence at MCK.
Heidinger declined to comment for this article.
“In the real world, she’d be fired on the spot. But she’s the wife of the grand chief, and he thinks he can do whatever he wants because he’s the grand chief,” said Canatonquin. “He forgets something – he’s just a spokesperson. He’s not higher or lower than us. He should follow the rules. That’s the problem.”
According to Canatonquin, the Council chiefs behind the termination letter and BCR have consulted a lawyer who has assured them they have the authority to dismiss their clerk.
Bonspille insists the issue is a human resources matter and that chiefs do not have the ability to hire or fire employees.
“As a grand chief and as any chief would know, we shouldn’t dabble in administration,” said Bonspille. “Micromanaging is not part of our mandate. I leave all of that to the administration and to the HR department.”
Bonspille is not concerned about the appearance of nepotism in his decision to side with his wife in the dispute.
“I’m not concerned about anything because it’s an HR issue, and chiefs are dabbling. They’re micromanaging. It would be the same with any other employee, no matter the circumstance,” he said.
The MCK’s HR person, Caroline Dussault, is currently on leave, however. The grand chief acknowledges that this would mean no one at Council is presently able to terminate his wife or any other employee.
“Right now, we just have to wait for that person to return,” he said.
Bonspille also insists that the October 4 BCR that terminated Heidinger was illegitimate because he did not call the Council meeting himself, which he claims is a violation of protocol.
“This BCR you’re talking about, it’s unauthorized, and it’s illegal. That’s all I can tell you about that,” he said.
“It’s the same problem as the by-election,” said Etienne. “Victor’s refusing to acknowledge a BCR signed by the majority of council.”
Etienne said the Council chiefs had attempted to add the item to the agenda of a normal meeting but that it was denied. A special meeting was then called with a quorum of chiefs – Etienne, Canatonquin, Amy Beauvais, and Denise David – who unanimously agreed to terminate Heidinger, he said.
“If a chief or majority of chiefs call for it and a majority of chiefs agree that a special meeting is warranted, the regulation is that the grand chief shall call the special meeting. It’s not may – it’s shall. In that case we did this, and he refused,” said Etienne.
“We went ahead, we appointed the chair, we went through the agenda, we took minutes, and we passed it through a vote and terminated her employment with the MCK.”
He also said the chiefs had been told that the September 16 letter should have sufficed because Heidinger was on a one-year probation.
According to Etienne, Heidinger first came on board around a year ago on an interim basis after her predecessor found a new job. This two-month stopgap became permanent when she was the only applicant to the position who did not withdraw.
“It was our fault. It was a mistake,” said Etienne of accepting her as clerk. “You act in good faith sometimes and you get bit in the butt.”
He claims performance and conduct issues arose during the interim period but that these ratcheted up after the position became permanent.
He said requests for clarifications in the meeting minutes would be met with rudeness or refusal.
“A lot of it’s been outright refusal to do everything other than what the grand chief says,” added Etienne. “There’s been a lot of insubordination, and she’s been an active participant in the harassment and lateral violence occurring in the Council.
“In any other type of organization not within the community, the first instance of that, she would have been out. It’s not acceptable but yet because she’s the grand chief’s wife, he’s doing everything in his power to disrupt our attempts to correct his issue.”
Etienne said he is concerned about confidentiality issues with the situation at a standstill.
“This is a concern because she has access to confidential Council information and community information,” he said. “She’s not an employee. She’s not a band member.”
Etienne claims there has been a chilling effect at MCK where other employees are not willing to get involved in following through with the termination, fearing the consequences.
“People are afraid. There’s a culture of fear being instilled around this person where it doesn’t matter what they do,” said Etienne.
“You’re not allowed to make somebody afraid for their employment just because it’s your wife, because it’s your family member that is causing an issue,” he added.
“Apparently the lesson we’re teaching our kids is that bullying works.”
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.