AFN leader keeps big picture in sight


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The career path of RoseAnne Archibald, the first female grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations, is filled with “firsts.”

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The career path of RoseAnne Archibald, the first female grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations, is filled with “firsts.”

The first female chief of Taykwa Tagamou Nation (Ontario), elected in 1990 at age 23. The first deputy grand chief of Nishnawbe-Aski Nation, an alliance of 51 First Nations across northern Ontario. The first grand chief of Mushkegowuk Council, representing eight Cree Nations. And so on.

In a world dominated by First Nations male leaders, Archibald has made her mark.

Spencer Colby / The Canadian Press files

AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald says ‘provinces often need to be reminded what First Nations rights and the federal government is too timid in reminding them.’

“I’m going into my 35th year of leadership, and it’s not been easy,” Archibald said during an exclusive interview for the Free Press podcast, Niigaan and the Lone Ranger. “But my goal has been to make Indigenous female chiefs and leaders normalized in these organizations.”

Her task leading the AFN has been particularly difficult.

Much of her first 18 months as grand chief (half her term) has been characterized by public infighting for power (surviving a suspension vote provoked by regional chiefs), struggles for financial accountability within the organization, and allegations of bullying and harassment against Archibald and others.

“The AFN has been particularly difficult to lead,” Archibald said, “because the primary purpose of the organization is to interface with the federal government and the colonial system. This means it is most often not welcoming to women or people who desire change.”

An example lies in the fact the administrative body of the AFN is known as the National Indian Brotherhood Inc. — a name that emerged in the 1970s, when the organization was founded. In December, chiefs passed a resolution to change the name.

“This is one of many changes we have implemented that people don’t see… words matter,” the grand chief said.

Archibald also points out the establishment of an AFN caucus of First Nations women leaders and a two-spirit council. Like her attempts to demand financial accountability and change the culture of the AFN, she has been met with systemic legacies.

“Making this kind of cultural and corporate shift is what I’ve been doing since I’ve been elected,” Archibald said, “but it’s been met with resistance.”

All of the attention to the internal conflict has obscured the steps the AFN has taken to engage the issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit peoples.

In December, Winnipeg police announced a man had been charged with four counts of first-degree murder, including three missing Indigenous women. The partial remains of Rebecca Contois were recovered from Brady Road landfill; the remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran are believed buried at Prairie Green landfill.

“The AFN is a platform,” Archibald said, “and a space we need to use to focus Canadians’ attention and demand the implementation of the calls for justice of the MMIWG2S inquiry and give justice to families… If any of us had our mom or sister lying in a municipal dump, it would not be acceptable as a final resting place. It’s not going to happen.”

The AFN has also been gripped in a struggle with the federal government over a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision to compensate First Nations families impacted by the child welfare system.

The AFN is also engaged with class-action settlements for day school survivors, residential school survivors left out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada process, and the issue of clean water and flooding of First Nations communities.

Archibald advocates for a new national healing fund for First Nations individuals harmed by infrastructure problems and trauma: “We need processes that will rebuild First Nations communities from the violence Canada has and continues to cause.”

A major problem, Archibald said, continues to be the way provincial governments deal with First Nations.

In New Brunswick, for example, Premier Blaine Higgs recently cancelled a three-decade-old tax-sharing agreement with First Nations with no warning. In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford continues to push ahead with the controversial “Ring of Fire” mineral project dependent on First Nations land.

“Provinces often need to be reminded what First Nations rights and the federal government is too timid in reminding them,” Archibald said. “Every piece of Turtle Island, North America, is First Nations land, and we must be involved in everything that happens on our lands… When (First Nations communities) heal, everyone heals in this country.”

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair

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

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