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Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde speaks during an announcement in Ottawa on Dec. 3, 2020.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Indigenous leaders are calling on the Assembly of First Nations to postpone its July virtual election for a new national chief to December, when the worst of the pandemic may be over.

Nominations to replace retiring AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde opened Wednesday, with Alvin Fiddler, Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation in Northwestern Ontario, becoming the first Indigenous leader to put his name forward.

Mr. Fiddler does not support postponing the election despite calls from other Indigenous leaders, who say holding the vote during the pandemic will disenfranchise many First Nations communities.

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The executive committee of the AFN met Wednesday afternoon and voted to proceed with the election, over objections from regional chiefs from Quebec, British Columbia and Yukon, even as chiefs across the country expressed concerns about a potentially unfair contest.

“It is critical for the legitimacy of the organization to have an election that people are able to participate in,” Yukon Regional Chief Kluane Adamek told The Globe and Mail. “At this point in time, it doesn’t make sense to rush through [with an election] and First Nations need to be assured that this is a fair, transparent and secure process.”

Chief Leah George Wilson of B.C.’s Tseil-Waututh Nation said that the virtual election will prevent AFN candidates from travelling to communities and cut off people who don’t have access to reliable internet services.

“[About] 40 per cent of our communities don’t have broadband service, so we would be effectively cutting out all of those people from participating, and the national chief is the one who represents all of us,” Ms. Wilson said. “How can someone represent all of us if 40 per cent weren’t able to participate?”

The AFN said in a statement that it is “confident that the election will be safe, secure and accessible for all chiefs.”

Former Saskatchewan provincial court judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond wrote a letter to the AFN last Friday, saying First Nations people have reached out to her, expressing their concerns about holding a virtual election in the midst of a pandemic.

The campaign for national chief requires travel to First Nation communities and the election itself usually takes place in a large gathering. None of this can take place currently because of travel and health restrictions, she said.

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“Simply stated, some Indigenous peoples and communities will be near shut out from any participation in a virtual election process,” Ms. Turpel-Lafond said. “To put it bluntly, the most likely outcome of following through with the current virtual election plan is an outcome that is less democratic, less fair and less accessible.”

Ms. Turpel-Lafond said a virtual election also limits the ability of candidates and communities to properly discuss the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as a recently passed resolution calling for an independent investigation to end gender-based discrimination within the AFN.

Mr. Fiddler announced his candidacy in his community of Muskrat Dam First Nation, saying he wants to address “severe inequities” that the pandemic has exposed in remote communities. His agenda includes campaign promises to provide better housing, extend First Nations policing and end drinking-water advisories.

“First and foremost is keeping our communities safe from this deadly virus,” he said in an interview.

However, Mr. Fiddler disputed the need to delay the vote until December, saying it would require an interim chief to take over from Mr. Bellegarde.

“Our communities are ready for change,” he said. “Chiefs and communities are looking for leadership … someone with a strong mandate, and I don’t think now is the time to have interim leadership.”

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But Ms. Adamek said the AFN has a capable chief executive officer who could act as interim chief if the election is postponed.

Ms. Adamek, Ms. Wilson and Ms. Turpel-Lafond also said it’s time for the AFN to elect a woman as national chief. Independent MP and former Liberal justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has not ruled out seeking the top AFN job.

“That is a very good option for her. I hope she considers it,” said Sheila North, former grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, who also ran for national chief of the AFN in 2018. Ms. North said she agreed the election should be delayed because of the pandemic.

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