Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Newly elected AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald of Taykwa Tagamou Nation, left, gets a hug after the closing ceremony of the AFN's Annual General Assembly in Fredericton, N.B., July 25, 2019.Stephen MacGillivray/The Canadian Press

RoseAnne Archibald has won the race for national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, making her the first woman to head the organization, whose leadership has traditionally been dominated by men, like the chiefs themselves.

She will now face extreme challenges: within the AFN, between the AFN and the chiefs and in the assembly’s relations with Ottawa.

As Ms. Archibald well knows, the situation at the end of her three-year term could be worse instead of better.

RoseAnne Archibald elected as new AFN national chief, first woman to hold position

The AFN confronts a federal government and a country with a long and lamentable record of hostility to the rights of Indigenous peoples. It must advance those rights, and also help to heal Indigenous wounds at a time of great national shame, as gravesite after gravesite emerges of children – hundreds, even thousands – who were buried at former residential schools.

But Ms. Archibald’s first act of healing must be within the AFN itself. My colleagues Steven Chase and Kristy Kirkup reported in February that the AFN had launched an inquiry into allegations against Ms. Archibald of harassment by four AFN employees, when she was the AFN’s Ontario regional chief.

Ms. Archibald has said the accusations were unfounded, and were a backlash to criticism of the AFN’s administration by Ontario chiefs.

As well as internal disagreements, the AFN must confront an inherent contradiction in its mandate.

The assembly is essentially a lobbying organization, charged with pressing the federal government for improved services and increased self-government for the 634 First Nations it represents.

But the national chief is elected by the chiefs of each band, and some see her as the representative of all First Nations. This is treacherous ground, for there are regional and ideological cleavages among the chiefs, as you would expect in any organization with such a diverse membership.

Almost a decade ago, former national chief Shawn Atleo worked heroically to forge a consensus among the chiefs in support of then-prime minister Stephen Harper’s First Nations education act, which included almost $2-billion in new funding as part of a reorganized and more centralized First Nations education system.

But for some First Nations leaders, any system that lessened the control of each chief over education funding on their reserve smacked of colonialism. The consensus collapsed, Mr. Atleo resigned and the Harper government withdrew the act.

On issue after issue, people look to the AFN to speak for Canada’s First Nations, even as the bands argue amongst themselves. Which matters more: resource revenues or environmental protection? Should there be a greater emphasis on improved housing and social services, or on self-government and land claims?

One thing that will unite the chiefs: Now that the Liberal government has incorporated the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into Canadian law, the AFN must work to give that declaration teeth in Crown-Indigenous negotiations.

Some First Nations refuse to participate in the AFN. It is, after all, a lobbying organization with a quasi-parliamentary gloss, making it very much a construct of the settler culture, which for some means the assembly is illegitimate, as is the Canadian state. This attitude appears to be gaining increasing currency, especially among activists and within universities.

A further concern relates to the role of provincial governments, which are primarily responsible for education, health care, infrastructure, policing and other day-to-day services outside reserves. Many chiefs want nothing to do with the provinces, insisting on a nation-to-nation relationship with the Crown and demanding that the AFN resist the provincialization of services to their bands.

But the Crown, in the form of the federal government, does a lousy job of providing those services to reserves. Transferring responsibility and funding for services to First Nations on reserve to the provinces would almost certainly improve the quality of life on reserves. But most chiefs will have none of it.

These issues have been around for a long time. But the strong emphasis of the Trudeau government on achieving reconciliation, the failure to achieve that reconciliation, and the discovery of the unmarked graves, have heightened tensions.

Ms. Archibald will have to find a balance between exploiting those tensions to win gains for First Nations, and helping to keep them under control. It makes you wonder why she wanted the job.

Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.