New grand chief inherits organization in crisis First woman to lead trouble-laden AMC will require steady hand to avoid ‘glass jump’
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If there’s one thing evident at the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, it’s that a grand overhaul is necessary.
Not change — an overhaul.
Electing the organization’s first female grand chief is a step in that direction.
On Wednesday, the majority of chiefs of Manitoba elected former Pimicikamak Cree Nation chief Cathy Merrick to lead Manitoba’s most powerful First Nations organization.
Merrick received 37 of 59 votes (63 per cent) on the second ballot to finish first, ahead of former Berens River First Nation chief and elder George Kemp (37 per cent).
“You should all be proud,” Merrick announced through tears to all in attendance. “I’m the first woman chief for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.”
Merrick’s campaign included promises to improve health services on First Nations, build partnerships with businesses and governments and addressing Indigenous homelessness in cities.
Merrick has a strong track record in all of those areas.
She is credited for her five years as chief at Pimicikamak when she set the groundwork for the new $40-million hospital currently under construction there and, more recently, leading a successful pandemic-response team in the community.
She is best known for her 12 years as a band councillor advocating for fair deals and awareness of her community’s issues with Manitoba Hydro.
She is also well liked and respected in Indigenous leadership circles and, in particular, among northern Cree communities. During her campaign she was nominated and endorsed by numerous northern leaders, including her own chief, David Monias.
Merrick is a mother, an auntie and an elder who carries what I will call an “auntie vibe” — which means a lot in Indigenous circles. Elders say when a house is spinning out of control, call your auntie.
Merrick is a no-nonsense, straight-talking auntie who demands clarity and fairness.
The question is whether she is ready for what’s in front of her at AMC.
Merrick inherits an organization in shambles after jettisoning former grand chief Arlen Dumas, who was the subject of sexual harassment and toxic workplace complaints.
In addition to Dumas, several high-ranking AMC staff have been accused of enabling, protecting and covering up long histories of misbehaviour.
Simply put, removing Dumas from his leadership position in August was just a part of dealing with the organization’s issues, which include other scandals that have been well-documented and written about elsewhere.
My point is that AMC is now known more for it’s dysfunction, harm and abuse than anything else. Merrick is inheriting a mess created by toxic masculine behaviour.
This is called “the glass cliff” — when a woman takes a leadership role after men have left a business or government in crisis; the workplace is at its worst and failure is likely.
A more Indigenous version might be the “glass jump” — adapted from the Cree practice of driving buffalo to their deaths over a cliff.
If Cathy Merrick is to succeed as grand chief of Manitoba’s most important First Nations organization, she must take radical steps to clean up and hold people in senior leadership accountable in ways they are not used to.
She must change the culture, behaviour, style of communication and the way the assembly does its business.
As shown through numerous reports, the problems at AMC cannot be pinned solely on Dumas, and many of them are not recent. There is systemic violence within the walls of the organization and that can’t be solved by changing the paint on the wall.
It means Merrick’s entry into AMC may be bumpy. It may involve the removal of longtime employees, who will then complain on social media. It may also involve a lot of time.
In her announcement that she was running for grand chief, Merrick said “a unified government is what we need in these crucial times for our people.”
I cannot agree more.
It just may take a long time for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs to get there.
Since this was a grand chief by-election, Merrick’s term ends in July 2024.
I, like many, wish new Grand Chief Cathy Merrick nothing but the best.
I especially hope she avoids the glass jump.
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.