Chiefs in northern Manitoba say Sheila North, an outspoken champion of First Nations people who was among the first to call for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, will challenge Perry Bellegarde for the job of national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
Ms. North, 46, is Grand Chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), a collective of 30 First Nations in the northern part of that province. She is a former broadcast journalist who has distinguished herself by her willingness to speak openly and bluntly about issues affecting Indigenous people.
Ms. North has yet to officially declare her candidacy to lead the country’s largest Indigenous advocacy group. But Chief Marcel Moody of the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation told The Globe and Mail on Friday that she has informed the members of the MKO executive she will not seek re-election so she can campaign to become head of the AFN.
Ms. North would not confirm her intentions in an interview with The Globe. But she made it clear she is thinking about ways that the AFN, which has been under the leadership of Mr. Bellegarde since December, 2014, could better meet the needs of the First Nations it was created to represent.
“What I am hearing across the country is that it’s time for the sovereign nations to have the say and control over their own lives and people. We’re hearing that the AFN should not be negotiating on behalf of First Nations communities, that it should be a conduit, it should be a co-ordinating body,” Ms. North said.
It is a line that the AFN, a lobby group representing 634 First Nations which is not a governing body, has sometimes overstepped, Ms. North said.
Mr. Bellegarde has stated his intention to run for a second term as national chief.
Russell Diabo, a policy analyst from the Mohawk community of Kahnawake south of Montreal who has been prominent in Indigenous political circles for several decades, has also decided to run.
A vote will be held July 25 in Vancouver.
Ms. North said the major issues facing First Nations include widespread poverty, insufficient housing, the fallout of the residential schools, the poor quality education on reserves and, of course, the huge number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. And, she said, First Nations people continue to be treated disrespectfully in their own country.
“I think we have to look at ourselves as a nation and figure out what that is and where it comes from and start to change it,” Ms. North said. “I think it’s going to take generations ahead of us to do that but we can all do something now to change our attitudes towards Indigenous people in this country.”
Ms. North grew up in Oxford House, Man., which is now known as the Bunibonibee Cree Nation. As a child, she said, she had three goals. She wanted to be an entrepreneur, she wanted to be a television journalist and she wanted to be a politician.
As a young mother of two escaping an abusive relationship, she started an Indigenous arts gift shop in Winnipeg. She then gravitated to journalism where she worked for both the CBC and CTV, and has been a communications expert for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
In 2015, she was persuaded to run for the leadership of MKO. And now she is being urged to make a bid for the AFN’s top job.
“I think the work that she has done for MKO is exceptional,” Mr. Moody said. “She is really open to talk about anything and she is always available to media and to the people to address the issues that we face, not only in northern Manitoba but also in the province as a whole and the country.”
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs said he has been impressed with Ms. North’s ability to articulate the issues and to focus on rebuilding First Nations from the bottom up, as opposed to the top down.
“I find her to be a very serious, deeply committed and dedicated leader and quite frankly it’s time we had a woman leading the Assembly of First Nations,” Mr. Phillips said. “It’s time.”