Cheryl Casimer said her heart was heavy when she logged in to Wednesday’s virtual special chiefs assembly held by the Assembly of First Nations in private to decide RoseAnne Archibald’s fate.
Casimer, who joined the meeting as a proxy, voted in July 2021 for Archibald to become the AFN’s first female national chief and was elated when she won.
But two years later, the conflict between Archibald, national chief staff and the AFN executive committee became too much for Casimer to bear.
“The big issues at hand have been pushed off to the side and we’ve been distracted by this too long,” said Casimer, political executive with the B.C.-based First Nations Summit.
Casimer was one of 163 First Nations leaders who voted to remove Archibald as national chief after an external workplace investigation launched by the AFN concluded she harassed and retaliated against staff.
Archibald’s historic electoral win also ended in an unprecedented way — the first impeached national chief.
The coming months for the national advocacy organization will present challenges, but also an opportunity to turn a chapter.
The AFN will elect a new national chief in December, whose first job will be to heal divisions within the fractured organization that Casimer and many other leaders said is in desperate need of a reset.
Conflict overshadowed much-needed work, leader says
With one year left in Archibald’s term, Casimer said it felt like the AFN was going to keep spinning its wheels instead of supporting First Nations to rebuild their nations.
“That was a tough decision to make,” she said.
“But we also had to make sure that we were looking out for the better interests of the organization.”
The turning point for Casimer came after a provincial court judge in Chilliwack, B.C., sentenced a man and woman to 10 years in prison earlier this month after they pleaded guilty to beating to death an 11-year-old fostered First Nations boy and assaulting his eight-year-old sister.
Casimer said it was clear to her that First Nations need more support from the federal and provincial governments to implement their own child welfare laws.
“That is a priority we should be talking about and that the national chief should be spearheading for us,” Casimer said.
Archibald and her legal counsel did not respond to CBC’s request for an interview.
But Archibald’s team said she will release a video statement on Monday to address “the great injustice against her, all women and grassroots people,” according to a Facebook post published Friday afternoon.
‘Things just weren’t going to change’
Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, said she tried to stand by Archibald, who she welcomed to her Vancouver Island territory several times.
Sayers, also a proxy voter, said she liked the way Archibald did politics, visiting communities and spending time with people.
Even when the workplace misconduct allegations began to surface, Sayers said she kept an open mind.
“There was just a moment when we knew that things just weren’t going to change with her,” Sayers said.
“Her need to go to the media, her need to be fighting in a public space, as opposed to working, trying to work together with the regional chiefs, with the chiefs across the country.”
Sayers said it was a difficult decision to vote yes to remove Archibald, who she said she still has a lot of respect for.
Archibald rejected the findings of the workplace investigation and called it a “tool” to undermine her.
She published multiple public statements and memos to chiefs citing concerns over the process.
Archibald also called it a smear campaign, rooted in misogyny, designed to distract from her forensic audit calls into AFN finances under her predecessors.
Sayers said Wednesday’s decision had nothing to do with a forensic audit, which is under consideration by a chiefs committee struck last July.
“This isn’t a gender thing,” Sayers said. “This is about a leadership thing. This is about the highest office in the land for First Nations and the person having the credibility and the high standards that we need in a leader that is advocating at a very important time in First Nations’ history.”
‘A sad day for Indigenous people’
Dr. Cathy Marten, a member of Listuguj Miꞌgmaq First Nation in Quebec, said she was disappointed by Wednesday’s vote.
“I was hoping that it wouldn’t be such a harsh decision,” said Marten, who ran against Archibald to become national chief in 2021.
“It’s a sad day for Indigenous people across Canada.… We’re the victims of a situation that couldn’t be resolved.”
Marten said she was hoping the AFN would take a more reconciliatory approach by resolving the issue through mediation, restorative justice or healing circles.
“A re-evaluation of what exactly the AFN is needs to be put out there,” Marten said.
Daniel Brant, from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory was AFN CEO under former national chief Matthew Coon Come from 2000 to 2003. He said he has worked with every national chief in some capacity since then.
He said Wednesday’s vote is not in keeping with the way the AFN handled past conflicts, which usually fester until the scheduled election.
“It’s a bit unusual,” Brant said.
“I think the executive has to operate as a unit and support whoever is the interim national chief and provide some stability,” he said.
Brant said he hopes it doesn’t have a chilling effect on women who would consider a bid for the top AFN job.
“I would certainly hope that more of the female leaders would look at this as an option,” Brant said.
Reputation being tarnished, staff morale at all time low
AFN Nova Scotia Regional Chief Paul Prosper said he doesn’t have any regrets about the way the AFN handled misconduct complaints against Archibald.
“This is all about — make no mistake about it — protecting staff,” Prosper said in an interview with CBC News.
“It was a tough decision, OK? But, frankly, it was the only decision we had.”
Regional chiefs, who make up the AFN executive, recommended Archibald’s removal and called for this week’s meeting after receiving the workplace investigation report in the spring.
The executive initially suspended Archibald last year after the allegations first surfaced. Chiefs-in-assembly reversed the suspension during an annual general meeting in Vancouver last July — calling on both sides to work together.
Aside from the five complainants who came forward last year, Archibald’s tenure as national chief was also challenged by 10 other members of AFN staff, who made similar complaints against her in her previous role as Ontario regional chief.
“I felt that a lot of the leadership was just tired of what was going on at the AFN,” Prosper said.
“I think this will sort of reinvigorate us to come together and to work together, and to create that positive change that we all need, that renewed sense of optimism.”
Prosper said he had a legal duty to look after the best interests of the national advocacy organization and protect staff. He said he couldn’t be absolved on the basis of his friendship with Archibald or ignore the concerns from member chiefs.
“They saw how, once an incredible organization, the reputation being tarnished,” Prosper said. “The morale with staff being at an all time low.”
Prosper said the former national chief made unfounded accusations about corruption with the AFN. Chiefs are free to continue looking into the issue — if they wish, he said.
“There’s really no smoking gun here,” Prosper said.