Leaders of First Nations from across the country will choose a new national chief on Wednesday, with the winner facing the challenge of moving the Assembly of First Nations past a difficult chapter in its history.
The AFN, an advocacy organization that represents more than 900,000 people in 634 communities, works to influence federal government policy. Its national chief often deals directly with the Prime Minister and his cabinet.
The national chief must be elected with a 60-per-cent majority of the votes. If no candidate reaches that threshold in the first ballot, there are additional rounds of voting. This week’s vote will take place on Wednesday at a special chiefs assembly in downtown Ottawa. Voting will begin in the morning, with the first ballot result expected at about 4 p.m. ET.
The AFN typically holds an election for a national chief every three years, but this vote is taking place after a tumultuous time of internal strife at the organization. In June, RoseAnne Archibald, who had been serving as national chief since July, 2021, was ousted from her position after 71 per cent of 231 chiefs voted to dismiss her, saying they did not have confidence in her leadership.
When she first became national chief, Ms. Archibald, from the Taykwa Tagamou Nation in Northeastern Ontario, was the first woman to hold the position in the organization’s 50-year history.
Her removal took place after an external review found evidence that she harassed staff members. Ms. Archibald denied all wrongdoing.
The organization has since been led by an interim national chief, Joanna Bernard.
In the past, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been careful about discussing the organization’s leadership. When he was asked in June about the possibility of Ms. Archibald’s removal as national chief, he said that one of the “colonial principles” that governments should do away with is having opinions on how Indigenous people govern themselves.
It is the responsibility of the federal government to be there as partners, Mr. Trudeau added. “I can assure you that this government will always be there to work with the Assembly of First Nations and their leadership, regardless of what various positions, or who wins, or who does what within that leadership.”
One of the current issues for the AFN has been federal legislation known as Bill C-53, which recognizes Métis governments in Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan.
Ms. Bernard said the bill must be withdrawn, and the government must “properly engage and consult with First Nations rights holders” about the potential effects of the legislation. She also called for a First Nations-led process to ensure all impacts of the legislation are thoroughly considered.
Some First Nations leaders believe the legislation was introduced by the federal government without proper consultation and fear it could pose a threat to First Nations’ inherent and constitutional rights.
Ottawa has not said that it intends to rescind the legislation. Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree told a parliamentary committee that pushback on the legislation is “largely based on misconceptions.”
Another key priority for the AFN is its national climate strategy, released in October, which underscores the need for climate action led by First Nations. The organization also has sent a delegation to COP28 in Dubai.
There are six people who are vying to become the next national chief: Sheila North, Cindy Woodhouse, David Pratt, Reginald Bellerose, Craig Makinaw and Dean Sayers.
Sheila North: Ms. North, of Bunibonibee Cree Nation in Manitoba, previously served as the grand chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, commonly referred to as MKO. When she was elected in 2015, she was the first woman to hold that position. She has also worked as a journalist.
Cindy Woodhouse: Ms. Woodhouse, from Pinaymootang First Nation, is the Manitoba regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations. She previously worked for other AFN leaders, including Perry Bellegarde and Shawn Atleo. As regional chief, she was the lead negotiator for the AFN on a multibillion-dollar settlement over child-welfare services for First Nations children.
David Pratt: Mr. Pratt is from the Muscowpetung First Nation in Saskatchewan. He has been serving his second term as the first vice-chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations.
Reginald Bellerose: Mr. Bellerose was previously chief of Muskowekwan First Nation in Saskatchewan. He also spent 16 years with the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority. He was the runner-up to Ms. Archibald in the last AFN election for national chief.
Craig Makinaw: Mr. Makinaw has held a series of political roles including as the AFN regional chief for Alberta, serving as chief of Ermineskin Cree Nation and grand chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations.
Dean Sayers: Mr. Sayers served as the chief of the Batchewana First Nation in Northern Ontario for nearly two decades. During the course of his career, he was a lead negotiator for the Robinson Huron Treaty litigation that resulted in a $10-billion settlement. He also was an advocate during the Ontario First Nations’ fight against the proposed HST.