As a power struggle over the employment status of the current-or-former Council clerk grinds Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) business to a halt, The Eastern Door has learned there was a Kanehsata’kehró:non alternative to the grand chief’s spouse for the job.
Karen Heidinger, the wife of MCK grand chief Victor Bonspille, has twice been terminated by a majority of Council chiefs, first with a signed letter on September 16 and subsequently with a Band Council Resolution (BCR) on October 4.
However, Bonspille has not accepted the termination, insisting Council chiefs have no right to fire an MCK employee, even their own clerk.
Meanwhile, rejected applicant Jonathan Turenne, 33, is left to wonder what went wrong.
“It was like having the carpet pulled out from under me,” said Turenne, who had believed he had a fair chance at getting the job as a Kanesatake Mohawk fresh off a political science degree from Concordia University, where his extracurriculars included the Model United Nations.
The February job posting named a political science or administration degree as a prerequisite and indicated that a combination of work and education may be counted toward a three-year experience requirement.
Prior to attending Concordia, Turenne spent three-and-a-half years at Dawson College studying law, justice, and society. Although he felt his interview at MCK went well, Turenne was told it was a lack of experience that led the hiring committee to select another candidate.
“We were all impressed with your candidacy and believe you have great potential,” reads the April 2022 rejection letter from Rola Helou of S.O.A.R. Solutions, with MCK human resources (HR) person Caroline Dussault in CC.
“You provided good answers, were very positive, and we all believed you would do a good job, if there was support and training offered in this position. We encourage you to keep applying to positions that align with your aspirations.”
Turenne is now working at Wal-Mart. Instead, the job went to the grand chief’s wife, who is not a band member, but who had already been racking up experience on the job for months as the interim Council clerk.
Turenne was left wondering whether he was ever being seriously considered, especially after his interview was changed to remote and only took place in person at his insistence.
Despite his positivity about his performance, one low point for him was the written test that was administered to him.
One of two questions, he said, essentially asked him to write a Mohawk Council resolution, a specialized task specific to band council.
“Because I haven’t been taught to do specifically a Council resolution, I couldn’t answer the question,” Turenne said. “I left that one blank and I gave an explanation that I’ve dealt with constitutions, I’ve studied constitutions, I know how they’re structured, so the transition to Council resolutions shouldn’t be too hard. That’s what I put in.”
According to MCK chief Amy Beauvais, the then-interim Council clerk would have had a vast advantage in answering a question like this since she had been afforded the opportunity to learn on the job.
“If they were given a BCR to complete, (Heidinger) had already done some, so that could make it biased, because how would someone coming in that’s never done a BCR win against someone that has been practicing?” she said.
She recalls being told the grand chief’s wife had been deemed the candidate who was best qualified for the position, although she was aware another candidate had been rejected.
However, learning that the rejected applicant had a political science degree put this into question.
“I’m assuming that would transfer much better than possibly anything our former Council clerk (Heidinger) had to that position,” said Beauvais.
MCK chief Brant Etienne agreed the tasks demanded by the job are within the skill set of someone with the right education, even if there may have been a learning curve.
“Karen herself and the previous person had to figure out how things worked, so I don’t know why that would have been a detriment to this person,” said Etienne.
“If he’s gone through post-secondary, he should have the writing skills and organizational skills to do this, especially with political science.”
Etienne said he first learned about the existence of another viable candidate when approached about it by The Eastern Door – he was told Heidinger was the only candidate who did not withdraw, he said, although other chiefs recall being aware of a second candidate.
“There were three candidates. There was only one who wanted to remove herself,” said MCK chief John Canatonquin.
“Right off the bat, it was our mistake. We should have never accepted her name because that was the wife of the grand chief,” he said.
MCK HR person Dussault, who is on leave, did not reply to multiple requests to comment.
Bonspille refused to discuss the situation surrounding the Council clerk for this article.
“I’m not commenting on anything,” he said. “I’m not going there. It’s HR, that’s it, okay?”
Bonspille has previously told The Eastern Door that only MCK HR can deal with employment of MCK staff and that any involvement of chiefs would be meddling.
Acrimony on the agenda
Meanwhile, MCK business appears to be at a standstill, with a majority of chiefs refusing to recognize the employment of Heidinger, and Bonspille insisting that meeting items can only be added through her, something he acknowledged to The Eastern Door.
“Of course, that’s process,” Bonspille said, but refused to comment further on the situation.
According to a partially redacted email chain obtained by The Eastern Door, Bonspille cancelled the weekly meeting of Council that was set to take place November 8 because Heidinger did not receive agenda items by the deadline.
“Karen is an employee of the Mohawk Council, Chiefs do not have the authority to hire or terminate employees, stay out of administration!” wrote Bonspille. “POINT FINAL!”
The previous week, Etienne attempted to add an item to the agenda without going through Heidinger, but he was rebuffed by MCK chief Valerie Bonspille, the grand chief’s sister and Heidinger’s sister-in-law.
“When we hire a new clerk to fill the vacant position, then we can start to include them into the CC once again. Until the position is filled once again, there is no point,” wrote Etienne.
“Sorry to disappoint you Brant but the position is filled and no posting will go out,” replied Valerie Bonspille. “So get over it. Send items to the clerk if you want it on the agenda. That’s it, otherwise it won’t be added.”
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.