The Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Ontario’s largest Indigenous governance group, is refusing to accept the outcome of an emergency meeting where the nation’s chiefs voted to suspend him in response to accusations of workplace harassment.
The motion at Thursday’s meeting of the chiefs reinforces an earlier decision by the nation’s executive council to suspend the Grand Chief, Derek Fox, with pay. Mr. Fox left the meeting and said to a photographer on the way out: “Still the Grand Chief. You can write that.”
His lawyer, Rebecca Amoah from Torys law firm in Toronto, said in a statement that her client was removed from the meeting and denied the opportunity to address the chiefs – an opportunity he was promised before waiting more than five hours. She said the motion to suspend him is invalid, because “many Chiefs were absent or were represented by proxies,” and because there was no quorum.
“He still has not been provided with an opportunity to address the Chiefs, or disclosure of the evidence supporting the allegations against him, contrary to the Executive Council Code of Conduct,” Ms. Amoah said.
The Nishnawbe Aski Nation represents 49 First Nations in Northern Ontario, and about 45,000 people. It carries out mandates from the chiefs meant to protect the nation’s inherent rights. This includes advocacy on national issues, like missing and murdered Indigenous women. The organization is also involved in a muti-million-dollar project with the federal and provincial governments aimed at overhauling health care services in the north.
The suspended Grand Chief arrived at Thursday’s in-camera meeting in Toronto wearing his headdress. Two sources who were at the meeting Thursday told The Globe and Mail that the chiefs in attendance were told Mr. Fox had been suspended as a result of allegations of workplace harassment, and for allegedly violating the nation’s executive code of conduct. The Globe is not naming the sources because they were not authorized to discuss the internal deliberation.
The Grand Chief faced another public misconduct allegation late last year. During an incendiary speech on the floor of an Assembly of First Nations meeting in December, Chief Jeffrey Copenance, from Onigaming First Nation in Northwestern Ontario, called Mr. Fox an “abuser,” among other things. Mr. Fox has filed a defamation lawsuit against Mr. Copenance.
This week, The Globe obtained a recording of a meeting last month between Mr. Fox and other members of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation executive staff, in which the Grand Chief asked that a junior manager be fired. The manager had written a letter requesting that the nation’s human resources department and health and safety committee provide support for employees who needed it as a result of the allegations made at the AFN meeting. The letter’s contents were described to The Globe by a Nishnawbe Aski Nation staff member. The Globe is not identifying the staff member because they fear job-related reprisal.
In the recorded meeting, which included at least three executive staff members, those around the table tried to explain that firing the manager would be against the advice of the nation’s lawyers. “I’m not coming in until this termination is done,” Mr. Fox told them.
“I see her as the extension of Jeff Copenance. I see her as a trigger … So you got to make a choice. The best interests of [the manager] or the best interests of the NAN chiefs.”
Ms. Amoah said Mr. Fox’s comments in the recording have been “taken out of context.”
“The Grand Chief always intended to serve and will continue to serve the people of NAN. However, he requires a functioning and trustworthy team to carry out the important work that NAN does,” she said.
Ms. Amoah said the conversation was taped without the Chief’s knowledge or consent, and that he has been “denied the opportunity to review or respond to the recording.”
On March 2, following his initial suspension, Mr. Fox said in a statement that he had asked the chiefs to call for an election of the entire executive council – which is made up of the Grand Chief and three deputy grand chiefs – to get the nation’s governance back on track.
Mr. Fox, who is also an Ontario lawyer, was elected Grand Chief in 2021, after having served for two terms as a deputy grand chief.