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Assembly of First Nations in uncharted territory as annual assembly begins in Halifax

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) kicks off its 44th annual general assembly in Halifax on Tuesday, and it remains to be seen whether it will get back to business, or if the group’s fractious leadership dispute will dominate the agenda.

National Chief RoseAnne Archibald was ousted at a June 28 virtual assembly in a vote attended by 231 delegates — less than half the 634 First Nations eligible. There are still 400 eligible chiefs who didn’t have their say.

Archibald, who is Cree, from Taykwa Tagamou Nation in northern Ontario, and the first woman to win the job, suggested her ouster was a coup fuelled by Liberal partisans and her predecessor’s loyalists. She has urged sympathetic chiefs to head for Halifax and reverse the decision, and has called for a probe into government meddling in assembly affairs.

Declining interview requests, Archibald vowed in a statement issued late Monday night to attend Day 1 of the meeting online, and potentially still travel to Halifax later this week. She called the appointment of New Brunswick Regional Chief Joanna Bernard as interim national chief “marred by conflict of interest and a laterally violent coup against me as the first duly elected female National Chief.”

Could Archibald be reinstated?

To remove a national chief, the AFN charter requires 60 per cent of those in attendance to adopt a non-confidence motion. It doesn’t mention the prospect of appeal. The group’s corporate bylaws say the removal of a board member is final.

Given the lack of precedent, some Archibald supporters were speculating that a resolution endorsing her leadership — tabled on June 28 but scrapped after the non-confidence motion — may resurface. 

A First Nations leader on Parliament Hill.
Chief Scott McLeod of Nipissing First Nation says it would be redundant to re-table the resolution supporting chief RoseAnne Archibald, which was scrapped from the agenda at the meeting where she was removed from office. (Brett Forester/CBC)

Scott McLeod, chief of Nipissing First Nation in Ontario and a leading Archibald opponent, said it would be “redundant” to re-table the resolution.

“That was already addressed,” he said Monday from Halifax.

“I don’t know how many times we have to do this. Right now, that resolution doesn’t even make sense because she is not the national chief anymore. I would suggest that that resolution is resolved.”

Joe Alphonse, chief of the Tl’etinqox-t’in Government and chair of the Tŝilhqot’in National Government, seconded the June 28 resolution in support of Archibald. He said he was disgusted by the way the AFN executive handled Archibald’s impeachment.

He urged her to fight on. 

“Hire a legal team. Challenge them,” he said. “I’ll bet on RoseAnne. She’s an honourable person. Pack rats like to run with pack rats.”

Bernard, appointed Monday by the regional chiefs, was a vocal Archibald opponent, slamming her in the June 28 meeting as failing to live up to the high expectations women leaders had for her.

“It is crucial that the Assembly of First Nations resume its important work of advancing First Nations’ priorities,” Bernard said in a news release.

Bernard was not made available for an interview on Monday.

Fate of forensic audit unclear

The AFN is one of the largest and most prominent Indigenous advocacy organizations in Canada. Its executive committee of 10 regional chiefs and the national chief gives instruction to its corporate arm, or secretariat.

Archibald’s battle with the administration of previous national chief Perry Bellegarde (2014-2021) was long-running and well documented.

It began in December 2020 when she backed a resolution calling for an investigation into gender-based discrimination at the AFN and escalated in February 2021 when her Chiefs of Ontario umbrella group passed a resolution calling for an independent financial review at the AFN.

Later that month, the Bellegarde-chaired executive voted to place Archibald, who was Ontario regional chief, under investigation after multiple AFN staff came forward with bullying and harassment allegations against her.

Archibald always maintained the timing indicated reprisal — a tit-for-tat counterpunch incited by her call for the financial probe — but the AFN maintained the two things were separate.

The investigation hit a wall and was not completed after no one filed a complaint in writing, citing fears of reprisal. Archibald won the July 2021 AFN national chief election on a platform that included a pledge to clean up the organization.

Judy Wilson looks austere as she stands on a street.
Judy Wilson, a former Kukpi7 (chief) of Neskonlith in B.C., will be among the delegates attending the 44th AFN assembly. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

The AFN executive voted to place her under investigation again in spring 2022 after four of her senior staffers filed complaints against her, followed by a fifth. The regional chiefs attempted to suspend her, but Archibald convinced the chiefs to overturn it and conduct a forensic audit based on her claims of corruption.

The second investigation found she had engaged in harassment twice and reprisal five times. Archibald again rejected the probe as a distraction from her campaign to root out alleged financial wrongdoing.

WATCH | Former AFN national chief appeals to her supporters: 

assembly of first nations in uncharted territory as annual assembly begins in halifax 2

RoseAnne Archibald appeals for help to be reinstated as AFN national chief

8 days ago

Duration 5:12

In a video posted to Facebook on Monday, RoseAnne Archibald said Assembly of First Nations chiefs ‘ignored our sacred ways’ on June 28 when they voted to oust her as national chief. Archibald appealed to her supporters to contact their respective chiefs and councils to ask for her reinstatement as national chief and to advocate for a forensic audit that she previously called for into AFN finances under her predecessors.

Judy Wilson, former chief of Neskonlith Indian Band in B.C., was in the June 28 meeting and will be a delegate in Halifax. 

The fate of the national chief should’ve been dealt with in person, she said, adding that the chiefs have not yet been provided with the full reports describing the nature of Archibald’s wrongdoing.

“There is still a feeling it’s not 100 per cent settled,” she said.

“It just seemed quite rushed.”

Flags from First Nations stand in a convention centre hall.
Flags from First Nations participating at the 44th Assembly of First Nations annual general assembly were set up and ready on Monday, ahead of the gathering at the Halifax Convention Centre. (Greg Bruce/CBC)

Meanwhile, as the harassment complaints moved forward, the forensic audit remained at a standstill for a year. 

Archibald has alleged the AFN executive spent roughly $2 million since February 2021 on investigations and legal fees to oust her.

Khelsilem, chairperson of the Squamish Nation Council in B.C. and chair of the volunteer-based AFN committee advancing the forensic audit, said last week “it’s been quite challenging” getting work done because they haven’t had any resources.

Khelsilem’s chiefs committee on charter renewal will release a report Tuesday recommending structural changes to the AFN via amendments to its charter.

“We think that many of our recommendations would address the concerns and challenges that the AFN has faced in the last number of years, both administratively and financially, and on governance,” he said Monday.

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