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Yukon government employees recorded making disparaging comments about First Nations students

Andrew Schaer, a former Department of Economic Development employee, says he secretly recorded a meeting in September
Former Yukon government bureaucrat Andrew Schaer, who was let go after catching colleagues on tape making disparaging comments about Indigenous education in a government staff meeting, is fighting in court to get his job back. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

Jackie Hong | News Reporter

Jesse Winter | StarMetro Vancouver

A disgruntled former Yukon government bureaucrat, who was let go after catching colleagues on tape making disparaging comments about Indigenous education in a government staff meeting, is fighting in court to get his job back.

Andrew Schaer claims he secretly recorded two co-workers, both of them senior business development advisors in the Yukon government’s department of economic development, during a staff meeting in September.

On the recording a male voice can be heard laughing and appears to call the Yukon College’s Institute for Indigenous Self-Determination “bullshit.”

Minutes later, while discussing a program aimed at improving post-secondary outcomes for First Nations students, he asks, “Shouldn’t they get them out of high school first? It’s a 50 per cent grad rate.”

“Yeah, minor technicality,” a female voice replies, laughing.

According to the Yukon government’s statistics, the high school graduation rate for First Nations students last year was 62 per cent, not 50. The territorial average was 75 per cent.

The female voice is then heard suggesting it would be better to “just mail them their certificates” rather than fund programs to improve Indigenous students’ college and university performances.

“That would be way cheaper,” she says.

Two sources the Star spoke to confirmed the meeting took place and that recording is real. A transcript of the recording, filed in court by the Yukon government, also matches the tape. A government spokesperson confirmed the recording was of a meeting involving government employees but would not identify the employees in question.

The government said in a statement it would not confirm whether the employees in question faced any disciplinary action because of privacy legislation barring it from disclosing employees’ work history.

Schaer claims the voices on the tape belong to Ian Young and Erin Deacon.

Reached by phone, both Young and Deacon refused to comment. Emails to both people were not returned.

Schaer was let go five days after coming forward with the tape in November. He is now suing the government and his former bosses for wrongful dismissal claiming protection under the territory’s whistleblower legislation.

“They messed with the wrong marine,” Schaer told the Star. “They didn’t count on me being 12 steps ahead of them.”

Government documents filed in court, however, claim Schaer’s abrasive and confrontational attitude with colleagues and clients as reasons for his termination.

Schaer forwarded the recordings to Yukon College president Karen Barnes in February, who was concerned enough to send them on to the government herself. She said language like that on the recording is still far too common in the Yukon.

“I feel disappointed, but I’m not surprised,” Barnes said. “I mean, wow, as a society, have we not gone further?”

She said countering those outdated perceptions is a big part of what the college does, in part by ensuring all staff and students take a course called First Nations 101.

The News reached out to the Council of Yukon First Nations as well as two other First Nations governments about the recording. All declined to comment for this story.

So how and why did Schaer start making secret recordings in the first place?

Schaer started working for the Yukon government on May 10, 2017, under a standard six-month probationary period. Almost immediately he began feeling harassed and bullied, he says.

“Andy, you won’t be here very long at (the Yukon government) if you become a liability,” Schaer claims one colleague told him early in his tenure. He claims other employees belittled his triple-honours Master’s degree, saying “you can get a degree anywhere these days. You can buy them online.”

Fearing for his job, Schaer says he didn’t file any official complaints but instead began using his phone to secretly record every interaction he had at work over a six-month period.

Meanwhile, his co-workers were growing uncomfortable. While they were not aware of his secret recording, Affidavits later sworn by deputy minister Justin Ferbey and Schaer’s co-worker Denise Monkman include multiple references to Schaer’s allegedly “aggressive” communication style.

An affidavit sworn by Monkman says that she never witnessed any bullying or harassment of Mr. Schaer. Instead, when she tried to explain to Schaer that his behaviour was making her and others uncomfortable, Schaer insisted that “pretty much everyone else in the office was trying to sabotage him with false complaints.”

Monkman’s affidavit says Schaer’s behaviour became so difficult to bear that she had to take time off work.

As interoffice relations continued to deteriorate, Schaer says he kept the tapes rolling the whole time.

In late September, that tape picked up the meeting where the two bureaucrats, who Schaer claims are Deacon and Young, made the allegedly disparaging comments.

Schaer says the comments were especially hurtful not only because of his Métis heritage, but because his partner is Tsalagi (North Carolina Cherokee) and their children share her Indigenous heritage.

“When they were deriding First Nations youth, calling them stupid, saying it would be cheaper to mail them their certificates rather than them go to school, the only thing I thought of was my daughter,” Schaer said.

* * * *

By mid-October, things reached another boiling point. Schaer, who says he is also Francophone, claims he was speaking in French on the phone with an employee at the federal government.

During the call, according to an affidavit sworn by Schaer, Young told him to “Take that fucking French shit someplace, else!” And still Schaer did not report the abuse. He says the tapes continued to roll.

At the end of October, Ferbey — who is a citizen of the Carcross Tagish First Nation — gave Schaer a letter saying his six-month probationary period was being extended for another six months “to see if these issues could be addressed successfully,” according to Ferbey’s affidavit.

By this point, Schaer says, he couldn’t wait any longer. On Nov. 3, he met privately with assistant deputy minister Stephen Rose and disclosed what he says was six months’ worth of detailed, documented instances of harassment and abuse. He also emailed a detailed list of his allegations to his bosses, and their bosses.

Five days later the government ended Schaer’s employment.

Schaer claims the decision to extend his probation in the first place was an attempt to buy time while his bosses figured out a legal way to fire him., which he claims they ultimately did.

The Yukon government denies this, and is opposing Schaer’s attempt in court to be reinstated. The Yukon Supreme Court also granted the government an injunction barring Schaer from publishing any more of his recordings, and a restraining order preventing him from contacting Denise Monkman.

Emails between numerous senior Yukon government staff spanning the five days in question shed some light on the situation.

“Obviously some pretty concerning allegations from the employee as well as some alarming behaviour from the same employee,” wrote executive council office deputy minister Jim Connell on Saturday, Nov. 4, the day after Schaer’s “whistleblowing” email.

On Nov. 8, Thomas Ullyett, the acting public service commissioner, emailed Connell to tell him Schaer has been released. “He was rude and demanding to the end,” Ullyett writes.

Ullyett then emails Justin Ferbey. “I’d recommend that you have a conversation with Cheryl about how the (Respectful Workplace Office) would help the branch in question. If there’s any truth to Schaer’s recordings, it appears to be a dysfunctional workplace.”

On Nov. 8, the day Schaer was let go, he says he and Ferbey got into a confrontation. Schaer was told to leave the building immediately. He refused, arguing with Ferbey about why he was being let go. And, as he had done for months, Schaer was rolling tape.

During a recording of this confrontation, a male voice can be heard saying, “Andrew, you need to read the letter. You are being terminated because you are taping people.”

Schaer asks to return to his desk to collect his belongings. The male voice at first refuses, then agrees to escort Schaer to his desk. When Schaer tries to leave with a backpack, the male voice insists the backpack must be searched to ensure Schaer isn’t leaving with sensitive government information. Schaer refuses and the stand-off continuesand is eventually allowed to leave.

On the recording Schaer can be heard picking up his desk phone and calling the RCMP. He claims he is being held against his will, and asks the police to come and investigate. With the police on their way, Schaer is allowed to leave with his bag unsearched before police arrive.

* * * *

While the case goes to court in late May, it won’t be the first time Schaer’s picked a legal fight following his removal from an organization.

In the early 2000s, Schaer was a member of the Barrie, Ontario, yacht club but had a similar falling out where club members accused him of being impossible to work with. He accused the club’s executive of orchestrating an illegal ouster and sued the club and several members of its executive.

Court documents show he served each member with his statements of claim in person. During several of those interactions, the police were called. One of those members was Ian White.

On July 12, 2001, White returned home from a late dinner with his wife to find Schaer’s statement of claim shoved under his front door.

“He also saw a liquid puddle on the front stoop which he identified by smell as urine,” Justice Ernest Loukidelis wrote.

Schaer admitted to leaving the documents but denied peeing on White’s porch.

Two days later Schaer appeared at White’s door at 9:15 p.m. White armed himself with a 40-centimetre fibreglass baton, opened the door, “and in no uncertain terms told (Schaer) to ‘get the fuck off my property,’” Justice Loukidelis wrote.

What happened next is a matter of dispute. Schaer claimed White attacked him with the club, striking his head and leaving him to collapse in a neighbour’s driveway.

A hospital report showed only minor swelling and a superficial cut to his left temple.

White claimed that after he opened the door, Schaer jumped back, “struck a karate-style pose” and continued to taunt White with claims that they would see each other in court.

White was found not guilty in a separate criminal trial. Justice Loukidelis dismissed Schaer’s civil claim.

Schaer also lost his broader suit against the yacht club over his removal. He appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which declined to hear the case.

“In hindsight, the battle that I picked with the Barrie Yacht Club probably wasn’t the right battle to pick,” Schaer said.

“This battle I’m picking (with the Yukon government) is the battle I was born to pick.”

“I believe that I was chosen for this,” Schaer said. “I think that God knew I would have the conviction, at my own peril, to stand up and speak truth to power, to shine a light and blow the whistle because what they are doing is wrong.”

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