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Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Suspended trustee didn’t properly report expenses, audit finds
NOTL trustee Natalia Benoit has been suspended for violating the Niagara Catholic District School Board's code of conduct. Supplied

Reports show Natalia Benoit had links to far right groups

 

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to make clear that the Compliance Audit Review committee discussed the issue Wednesday, not the school board. It also clarifies some details related to the report and the audit investigation.

A Niagara-on-the-Lake Catholic school trustee who was suspended for five months last week over comments comparing the Pride and Nazi flags did not properly report her 2022 election expenditures, a financial audit shows.

In addition, The Lake Report’s analysis of the reports of the investigations into Niagara Catholic District School trustee Natalia Benoit show some connections to far right political groups and the so-called Freedom Convoys.

The audit, discussed at a Compliance Audit Review meeting Wednesday morning, found Benoit failed to report about $260 in campaign expenditures in the 2022 municipal election.

After a debate behind closed doors, the committee decided not to pursue any further legal action or penalty against Benoit. The committee’s reasons will be released at a later date, said chair Margo Pinder.

The auditor’s report by the firm MNP, said Benoit’s initial financial statement, filed March 27, 2023, showed she had no contributions and zero expenses.

An audit request from St. Catharines resident Christine Campbell was received by the city June 10, the report said.

Campbell told the auditors she saw Benoit’s election signs in her neighbourhood and the cost of them should have been declared in her financial statements.

The report said Benoit attempted to submit revised financial statements to the auditing committee on June 14 but they were rejected as the deadline had passed.

At a meeting on June 22, the committee voted to proceed with the audit.

Though the auditors requested an interview with Benoit on Aug. 31, her agent Jeff Loucks declined it, saying she was on leave from her position as trustee until Jan. 29, 2024

The auditors sent Loucks and Benoit written questions on Oct. 4, 2023, and requested responses by Oct. 25. 

“As of the date of this report, we have not received a response from Benoit,” the auditors said.

Campbell was represented at Wednesday’s meeting by fellow resident Ann-Marie Zammit.

“At no point in this entire audit process has she stepped up to take any responsibility for her actions,” Zammit said, reading a statement from Campbell. “She has essentially disappeared.”

Zammit asked that Benoit be removed as a trustee and barred from running in any municipal election again.

Daniel Freiheit, a lawyer representing Benoit, said his client had experienced a traumatic miscarriage three days before submitting the financial statements from her campaign.

“My client’s head was not in the right space to realize that an in-kind contribution to herself had to be reported,” he said and asked the committee not pursue any further legal action.

The revised statements from Benoit referenced in the audit report attribute the $260 expenses to signs supplied by GE Group, a company that makes custom apparel, signs and flags for promotional purposes.

The company website lists the People’s Party of Canada as one of its customers and has a full webpage for products targeted at supporters of the Freedom Convoy protests of 2022.

The firm is owned by Glen Ellsworth, who has expressed support for the People’s Party and the Freedom Convoy movement on his personal social media pages.

Benoit was endorsed by the Campaign Life Coalition in her run for trustee in 2022.

The coalition is an anti-abortion lobby group that also espouses anti-trans and homophobic talking points on its site.

As well, this past Monday the school board released the full report of the independent investigation into Benoit’s code of conduct violation.

Cenobar Parker, an investigator with Parker Sim LLP, concluded in her report that Benoit violated the board’s code of conduct when she compared the Pride flag to the Nazi flag after a board meeting May 23.

“Trustee Benoit was drawing a comparison, despite her belief to the contrary, between the Nazi flag and the Pride flag, as both being controversial symbols,” Parker said in her report.

She also found the trustee had failed to demonstrate support or understanding of LGBTQ students.

The contents of the report were discussed by board members Jan. 23 but the report was released Monday along with the meeting’s official minutes.

The investigation into Benoit followed a complaint filed by fellow trustee Paul Turner.

Benoit’s comments came after a meeting in May where she proposed policy changes that would have prevented school board staff from advocating partisan social or political policy to students.

The policy would also have prevented staff from displaying any symbols that advocated for any political or social cause, including the Pride flag.

“This policy is designed to promote education, not indoctrination,” Benoit said in her proposal.

The proposal was silent on students expressing themselves through similar symbols or acts of social advocacy.

In an interview with the investigator, Benoit said she based her suggestion on a similar policy passed by the Central Bucks School District Board in Pennsylvania on Jan. 10, 2023.

That policy received immense pushback from students and parents advocating on behalf of the LGBTQ community the day it was passed. 

Benoit told the investigator she enlisted the support of Teresa Pierre, president of Parents as First Educators, in crafting her proposal.

Parents as First Educators is an advocacy group that promotes “the authority of parents over the education of their children through grassroots activism” and encourages people to “push back against gender identity theory in whatever form it enters our schools.”

The group organizes social campaigns against the teaching of critical race theory, gender identity and sex education. It also opposes legislation banning conversion therapy and making gender affirming counselling services more accessible.

In her report, Parker identified Peter Taras as the author of a video in which Benoit compared the Pride flag to that of Nazi Germany.

The video of Benoit has been scrubbed from the internet, though the investigator made attempts to recover it from Benoit and others linked to the investigation.

None provided a copy, the report said.

“I find it troubling that she was unable to locate a copy of the video, particularly when she acknowledged having the ability to contact its owner,” Parker said in her report.

Taras is an active member of the People’s Party of Canada, a right wing party that gained notoriety during the 2021 federal election for its opposition to transgender rights.

“I believe there is no such thing as a trans kid. There are boys and there are girls,” Taras said at a recorded rally posted to his YouTube channel.

He also has expressed support for the Freedom Convoy protests and opposition to vaccine mandates.

Taras spoke in favour of Benoit’s motion at a board meeting last June 20.

In a video posted June 21, also on his channel, Taras spoke to Jason Benoit, the trustee’s husband, outside the board’s office in Welland.

“They want your children in the worst way. It is sacrificial almost,” Jason Benoit said in the video.

He ran unsuccessfully for St. Catharines council in 2022 and described the board’s choice to fly the Pride flag as a form of indoctrination being shoved down the throats of parents.

He also said the Catholic board would “ruin your child.”

In her investigation, Parker also concluded Natalia Benoit violated her responsibilities under the Education Act when she “encouraged a parent to remove their child from the board” if it chose to fly the Pride flag.

 

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