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Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald speaks during a news conference in Kamloops, B.C., on Sept. 30, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

First Nations Chiefs from across Canada are set to gather in Vancouver next week, but along with discussions on issues ranging from climate change to housing and child welfare, they will also face an unfolding leadership crisis within their national advocacy organization.

The annual gathering is held by the Assembly of First Nations, or AFN, which represents hundreds of First Nations communities. The recent suspension of the AFN’s National Chief, RoseAnne Archibald, has added uncertainty to the proceedings, at which Ms. Archibald may face an attempt to remove her from her elected position.

The National Chief’s suspension has inflamed debate about the AFN’s governance structures, and prompted questions about whether sexism played a role. The crisis is rocking the AFN as First Nations communities try to deal with issues including a lack of clean drinking water and safe housing.

“We rely upon the voice of the AFN at the national level,” said Leah George-Wilson, a lawyer who has also served four terms as Chief of Tsleil-Waututh Nation in British Columbia. “So we need the AFN to get its act together.”

The AFN’s executive committee and national board of directors suspended Ms. Archibald on June 17 pending the outcome of an investigation into four complaints against her. Ms. Archibald was elected less than a year ago, the first woman to hold the job.

The executive committee initially banned Ms. Archibald from attending next week’s annual general assembly, which will involve hundreds of First Nations leaders, elders and youth, but she has said she plans to be there. Asked on Tuesday if Ms. Archibald will attend, AFN spokesperson and Nova Scotia/Newfoundland Regional Chief Paul Prosper said it was still a “decision point.” He noted that while Ms. Archibald is not suspended from her title as National Chief, she is suspended from her role.

McLeod Lake Indian Band Chief Harley Chingee said he has prepared a last-minute resolution for a confidence vote on Ms. Archibald’s leadership, which he wants to occur on July 5, the first day of the assembly. It calls for her removal and the appointment of an interim national chief.

Asked whether such a resolution would be allowed to come to the floor, Mr. Prosper said that “it could certainly,” and then the AFN would consult over whether it would fit within the organization’s governance rules.

Four staff members have accused Ms. Archibald of bullying and harassment and she faces an external investigation, according to CBC News.

The AFN has said Ms. Archibald’s suspension was a result of a statement she made on June 16, in which she accused the four complainants, whom she did not name, of seeking contract payouts worth more than $1-million.

She also called for a forensic audit into the AFN dating back eight years.

Ms. Archibald said in the statement that her efforts to address corruption within the AFN made her a target of a smear campaign. Ms. Archibald did not respond to an interview request.

Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare, who is a member of the AFN’s executive committee, said in a statement last week that the suspension was necessary for the AFN to continue its “vital work and protect the privacy and well-being of its employees,” and that “we have yet to see any evidence supporting her claims.“

This is not the first time allegations about Ms. Archibald’s conduct have been scrutinized. In her previous role as Ontario Regional Chief, Ms. Archibald was the subject of several informal complaints of harassment and bullying from employees, although none of them pursued formal complaints. Last week, Ms. Archibald told CTV News that she has “always created safe, healthy workplaces.”

Judy Wilson, Kukpi7 (Chief) of Neskonlith Indian Band and the secretary-treasurer for the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, said chiefs expect the AFN leaders to work together on the issues that need attention.

“We’re in the forefront of issues on residential schools, housing, safe drinking water, environment, the climate crisis … there’s a lot of work to be doing,” she said. “There’s concerns about the operations and how we’re addressing these files.”

The UBCIC executive has supported Ms. Archibald’s call for a forensic audit.

Asked about concerns that the suspension may have stalled AFN’s work, Mr. Prosper said the organization is “still meeting the priorities set by our chiefs.”

Ms. George-Wilson emphasized the importance of the AFN, noting that not every First Nation has the capacity or resources to fight all the issues they face. “We need somebody to be speaking on our behalf to the federal government,” she said.

She added that she has heard from chiefs who are questioning Ms. Archibald’s suspension by the AFN’s executive committee, given that the chiefs elected her.

“Grassroots women are saying, ‘Okay, what is this about? Is it because she’s a woman? Is this all happening to her because she’s speaking out and she’s asking for a forensic audit?’” she said.

Niigaan Sinclair, professor and acting head of the department of Indigenous studies at the University of Manitoba, said it is “obvious” patriarchy is at play, noting that the AFN has long been “a boys’ network.”

He also said the AFN has “absolutely lost its way,” and noted that regional organizations are more effective at representing community interests than the AFN, as a national lobbying group.

Russ Diabo, an Indigenous policy analyst who has worked with the AFN, said Ms. Archibald’s suspension cannot be separated from a wider conversation about how closely the organization should work with the federal government.

“The AFN doesn’t have a lot of support amongst a lot of grassroots,” he said, adding that many see it “more and more as a tool of the federal government.”

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