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Former Thessalon First Nation director sues band for $850K over 'wrongful termination'

Mary Jane Wardell claims she was employed by the First Nation for 32 years before being fired and kicked out of the band office without cause
File photo.

The former director of operations for Thessalon First Nation is suing the Anishinaabe community east of Sault Ste. Marie over claims that she was wrongfully terminated and punted out of the band office — without pay, benefits or reasonable notice — for allegedly “failing to be in line with the directive” of new leadership following band elections in November of last year

Mary Jane Wardell is now seeking $850,000 in damages for wrongful dismissal and losses of earnings and employment-related benefits, in addition to “aggravated, moral and punitive damages” and special damages for out-of-pocket expenses incurred while seeking another job, according to a four-page statement of claim filed in Ontario Superior Court this past February. 

The allegations have not been tested in court. Thessalon First Nation has since filed a notice of intent to defend the legal action, but has yet to file a statement of defence in response to the lawsuit. “Thessalon First Nation disputes her claim but does not comment on matters that are before the courts,” said Thessalon First Nation Chief Joseph Wabigwan, when reached by SooToday April 19.  

Wardell — who was employed by the First Nation for 32 years prior to her termination — could not be reached for comment. 

“This is a wrongful dismissal case wherein the First Nation was intent on getting rid of the plaintiff,” reads the statement of claim. “The First Nation created false allegations and purported to terminate the plaintiff for cause where there was no such cause.

“Throughout the process, the First Nation acted maliciously, callously and in bad faith towards the plaintiff.” 

Wardell alleges that a “co-ordinated attack” against her reputation and “future position with the First Nation” unfolded on private social media groups while band elections were taking place Nov. 17, 2023, resulting in “false information about the plaintiff’s family” being disseminated.  

The longstanding First Nation employee also claims that Wabigwan and a band councillor “trespassed on the plaintiff’s personal residence and demanded that the plaintiff be woken up so that she could be given an envelope,” the evening after band election had taken place, according to court filings. “In addition, several band members were parked outside the plaintiff’s house as well as the Ontario Provincial Police.” 

Two days later, Wardell claims she was informed of an email circulating to band employees indicating that she had been terminated and that a replacement “would be providing support in overseeing the operations of the First Nation until a director was selected.” 

When Wardell returned to work at the band office Nov. 22, 2023, she was allegedly given a termination letter. “The plaintiff was not allowed time to pack up and collect her personal belongings and instead was given a box allegedly containing her personal items that had been boxed prior to her arrival.” 

“There is no merit to the First Nations’ allegation of just cause,” the statement of claim says. “The plaintiff states and the fact is that at all material times, while holding the position of director, she acted in a professional and diligent manner that was for the greater benefit of the First Nation, and to the best of her ability. The plaintiff did not have a history of formal disciplinary action against her leading up to the wrongful termination.

“The First Nation, as an employer, conducted itself in an unfair, malicious and unreasonable manner in terminating the plaintiff, and therefore the plaintiff is entitled to damages flowing from her wrongful termination.” 

Wardell claims an award of punitive and/or aggravated damages is justified, given the “high-handed, outrageous" and “oppressive” conduct allegedly carried out by Thessalon First Nation, which she alleges was a “planned, deliberate and orchestrated to cause damage and/or loss” to her. 

The former director also alleges she has been placed in a “vulnerable position” since her termination “given the public and unwarranted backlash and online harassment directed towards her.” Wardell also alleges that she has been placed in a "precarious financial position" as a result of the "retaliatory, malicious and intentionally demeaning actions" by the First Nation.  

“Despite the plaintiff’s many decades of dedicated service to their community in her role with the First Nation, the defendant has shown a callous disregard [and] lack of care for the well-being of the plaintiff,” according to the statement of claim.

Thessalon First Nation made headlines earlier this year when a pair of band members filed judicial reviews in Federal Court after the previously appointed election appeal board was blocked by the First Nation from reviewing election appeals by community members following last year’s elections for chief and council — a direct violation of the First Nation's own election code.

James Hopkin

About the Author: James Hopkin

James Hopkin is a reporter for SooToday in Sault Ste. Marie
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