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AFN begins assembly amid still-simmering internal tensions

The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and its executive committee plan to present a united front during the December special chiefs assembly, starting today in Ottawa, but tensions continue behind the scenes and workplace complaints from both sides remain unresolved, according to sources.

Conflict engulfed the AFN’s last gathering, in July in Vancouver. The committee had temporarily suspended National Chief RoseAnne Archibald amid accusations of workplace bullying and harassment, until First Nations leaders at the Vancouver assembly voted to reinstate her.

Archibald, meanwhile, accused CEO Janice Ciavaglia of undermining her through collusion with those complainants, according to a July 4 briefing note, distributed by the executive committee, from the law firm Stockwoods Barristers. 

Archibald and the executive committee — which is made up of chiefs representing 10 regions — were eventually ordered to set their differences aside and work together, by a resolution from the member First Nation chiefs, who ultimately set the direction of the organization.

While relations between the two sides have improved somewhat, internal workplace turmoil continues, according to sources who spoke to CBC News on the condition they not be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly and feared reprisal.

afn begins assembly amid still simmering internal tensions
First Nations leaders passed a motion at the July meeting ordering Archibald and the commitee to set aside their differences. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

CBC News has also learned that Ciavaglia is one of the five employees who filed workplace complaints against Archibald, according to an executive committee document obtained by CBC News.

That same document also shows Ciavaglia is facing a complaint by an employee of Archibald’s political office.

An external investigation into the allegations against Archibald is still ongoing.

The professional relationship between Archibald and Ciavaglia was strained further last month, according to one source, when Archibald allegedly sidelined the CEO while accepting an award on behalf of the AFN for being named as one of Canada’s 100 top employers.

CBC News reached out to Ciavaglia for comment, but has not yet received a response. She oversees the AFN’s administrative and program delivery arm, known as the Secretariat.

Archibald told CBC News the turmoil from last summer has not stopped her from executing her job and priorities.

“There are many needs in our communities so it’s really important for us to focus on that,” she said. 

“Even though you might have difficult situations, it hasn’t stopped us from doing the work we have to do.”

National chief wanted mediator

Archibald recommended hiring a mediator last August to help her and the regional chiefs move through difficult conversations. She floated names, such as former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould and former Truth and Reconciliation commissioner Murray Sinclair, but so far no one has been appointed. 

Archibald and the regional chiefs remained largely at odds following the July meeting, despite calls for unity from First Nation chiefs. 

During one of their first executive meetings on Aug. 4, Archibald and the regional chiefs spent more than three hours attacking each other, with both sides having lawyers in attendance, according to an audio recording of the meeting obtained by CBC News.

At one point, Archibald told the chiefs she hasn’t directed any Secretariat staff since taking office because she still feels under attack — because of a previous workplace investigation launched against when she was Ontario regional chief. 

“I don’t do anything with them because I knew that that the moment there was any interaction there would be complaints coming forward,” Archibald said.

afn begins assembly amid still simmering internal tensions 1
Archibald arrived at the assembly surrounded by a small group of supporters, including First Nations chiefs and grassroots community members. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

“I’ve not talked to them for the last year with the hope that they would feel safe.”

Archibald’s lawyer Aaron Deltor and lawyers with Stockwoods, representing the regional chiefs, sat in on the meeting.

Detlor told CBC News Archibald continues to reach out to members of the executive committee to work together.

“There needs to be a step back from the approach that’s been taken to date because I don’t think enough work is getting done,” said Deltor.

“This is not a personal attack, it’s more of a structural issue right now that’s going on. The structure needs to change so that more work can get done and, to be honest, better work can get done.”

But he said that approach can only go so far without willing partners. 

“I don’t think it’s working,” Detlor said. “We’re seeing over and over again this dysfunction … There needs to be less lawyers and more discussion.”

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