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Dene Nation calls for heads to roll

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services

Fort Smith (Dec 05/05) - The leader of the Dene Nation is calling for heads to roll over crude jokes e-mailed by an employee of the South Slave Divisional Education Council in Fort Smith.

In a Nov. 30 letter to Education Minister Charles Dent, National Chief Noeline Villebrun called for the resignation or dismissal of the employee who sent the e-mails and of Curtis Brown, the education council's superintendent.

Villebrun wrote she was "appalled" when she read a News/North story about the "joke-of-the-day" e-mails, with some making fun of aboriginal people and aboriginal women in particular, along with seniors and Catholics.

"If I remember correctly, recently one of our Dene MLAs had to resign because of racial remarks he made while intoxicated," she wrote, apparently referring to former North Slave MLA Henry Zoe, who was forced out of cabinet in 2004 after making disparaging remarks about Newfoundlanders.

"I feel the only way this will be resolved is if these two individuals are terminated from their employment as soon as possible," Villebrun wrote. "I am also requesting an investigation to ensure that this does not happen again in the future."

For more than two years, the messages went to a number of territorial government employees in Fort Smith via the education council's e-mail system.

They also were sent to one employees friends, relatives and former co-workers. She could not be reached for further comment late last week.

Brown would not comment directly on Villebrun's call for his resignation, noting the letter was sent to Dent.

"I let him respond," Brown said.

The superintendent said his immediate concern is preventing further e-mailed jokes. "We're doing all in our power to make sure it doesn't happen again."

The issue is being taken seriously by the education council and such e-mails are not condoned, he said. Brown said he became aware of the inappropriate content of the jokes only recently when contacted by News/North. The jokes were "overwhelmingly" not offensive, he added, noting he never saw any inappropriate content when he occasionally read one.

One joke mentions "how to tell if it's luv NDN style: He adds you to his welfare cheque." Another reads: "He hawks his rifle to bail you out of the drunk tank."

"I regret people may be offended or hurt," he said. "That makes me feel bad."

In particular, he regrets the issue may overshadow all the good the education council is doing for schoolchildren and their parents.

Dent was unavailable for comment Friday.

Sahtu MLA Norman Yakeleya supports Villebrun's call for resignations or firings at the education council.

"They've got to do some serious house cleaning there," Yakeleya said.

The MLA also suggested cultural awareness courses for their employees to prevent such a thing from happening again.

Such jokes are not okay in this day and age, he said. "It's like they were laughing at my grandmother and my mother," he said.

Whether that sense of outrage is shared in Fort Smith is debatable.

Donna Bourque, an aboriginal resident, said while the e-mails shouldn't have been sent, she is not personally offended by them.

"I think it was just a harmless thing," said Bourque, a corrections worker.

"I think it was blown out of proportion," she added, noting she has spoken to a number of people about the e-mail jokes and does not feel there is any sense of outrage in the community.

Following the News/North story, Brown said he has received one call from the parent of a schoolchild upset over the e-mails.