Annual meeting becomes battleground for AFN


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On July 8, 2021, the Assembly of First Nations elected its first female national chief.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/06/2022 (215 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

On July 8, 2021, the Assembly of First Nations elected its first female national chief.

For the historically male-dominated lobby group, the arrival of a woman at the helm suggested change was in the air. “The AFN made her-story today,” RoseAnne Archibald announced during her victory speech.

Apparently, some didn’t want to hear it.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES RoseAnne Archibald was the first female national chief ever elected by the Assembly of First Nations.

On June 17, a collective of regional chiefs, chairs of special councils and members of the AFN board voted to suspend Archibald — citing “public statements that breached her obligations to the AFN and are contrary to her oath of office.”

Over recent weeks, allegations emerged Archibald harassed and bullied staff, sparking an investigation under the AFN whistleblower policy (which Archibald herself introduced).

Archibald denied the allegations, calling it a “smear campaign” to obscure from her claims financial and political corruption existed throughout the AFN. Specifically, she said, the impetus to her suspension came from her refusal to approve a “$1-million payout” for “four outgoing AFN employees.”

Now, after what was supposed to be one of the most progressive years in AFN history, the organization is leaderless and mired in a constitutional crisis and civil war.

Things have gotten so petty Archibald’s work cellphone has been cancelled, her email account closed and she has been instructed not to attend the AFN annual general meeting July 5-7 in Vancouver.

Doug Cuthand, Indigenous affairs columnist at the Saskatoon StarPheonix, calls it “the worst crisis in the organization’s 40-year history,” resembling “a coup in a banana republic.”

At the very least, it’s an embarrassment and stain on what is supposed to be one of the most important Indigenous political organizations in the country.

Since being elected, Archibald had vowed to bring what she has called “truth, transparency and accountability” to the AFN.

According to a statement issued following her removal, she claims her efforts have encountered “extreme resistance… In my efforts to clean up corruption within the AFN, I’ve been undermined, discredited and attacked.”

She identified the AFN secretariat (corporate leadership) and regional chiefs as the main instigators.

Things came to a head six months ago, in December, when Archibald proposed a resolution at a chiefs-in-assembly meeting to “restructure” the organizational makeup of the AFN and perform a “forensic audit” on the past eight years — citing claims a “toxic” workplace had emerged during the time of national chief Perry Bellegarde.

The resolution was met with resistance, led by certain AFN regional chiefs, who represent provincial chiefs organizations and act as a sort of co-governing “senate” to the office of the national chief.

Regional chiefs, for example, handle many of the contracts and administration of their regions, as well as certain portfolios of the AFN. They have a lot of financial and political clout.

In Manitoba, for example, the regional chief is Cindy Woodhouse (voted in at a meeting of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs). Woodhouse is a longtime Bellegarde supporter and Liberal party advocate.

Bellegarde was widely considered to be very close to the Liberal party, too.

For weeks, things have gotten more and more divisive, with Archibald claiming she has “internal documents” proving her allegations and has received “many” messages of support for her actions. She has promised to unveil these at the AFN annual general meeting.

Whether she can speak at all though, is a question to be answered.

By placing her on suspension, the AFN has manufactured a constitutional crisis, since only the 634 chiefs representing the member nations can remove the AFN national chief from office — not the secretariat, regional chiefs, chairs of councils or anyone else.

Anyone wanting to remove Archibald could have convinced a single chief to put forward such a motion and only had to wait a few weeks — suggesting the suspension is suspicious and, at least, highly irregular.

Meantime, criticism for Archibald among chiefs is growing, too. Last week, the Chiefs of Ontario — a body who supported her bid for national chief — publicly endorsed the AFN suspension.

This all seems headed to a court battle: with a democratically elected national chief carrying allegations of harassment on one side and employees and regional chiefs alleged to be corrupt on the other.

The federal Liberal government needs the AFN to be a stable dance partner for its reconciliation agenda. It also stands to look bad if funds it provided to the AFN were misused or, worse, used to support corruption under its watch or to keep Liberal supporters in power.

It all makes for one interesting annual general meeting next week.

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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