Updated/Correction from the authors: 5:36 p.m. (MDT)—Ninth paragraph from the bottom. Paragraph begins Witnessing AFN’s refusal to consider… Correction: RoseAnne Archibald was not national chief in December 2020 as originally stated.
The Assembly of First Nations in Canada is an organization that advocates on behalf of First Nations with the federal government. Originating as the National Indian Brotherhood in the late 1960s, the organization has only ever been led by men. In June 2021, the Chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) made ‘her’story when they voted in the first female National Chief. It was not the first time a woman had run for the position.
The win for the then-Regional Chief of Ontario, RoseAnne Archibald, did not come easily. It required an unprecedented five rounds of voting. Fast forward to July 2023, and a review of news articles over this period tells a story of a leader whose time in power was fraught from the start.
In fact, it seems that it started when Archibald was still Regional Chief of Ontario and, through her leadership, the Chiefs of Ontario passed a resolution seeking an independent financial review of the AFN in February 2021 (Globe and Mail, Feb. 19, 2021).
A day after the confidential resolution was passed, then-National Chief Perry Bellegarde and legal counsel for AFN advised her of harassment allegations being made against her. In this context, theories about the struggle to seat her in 2021 as National Chief become more nuanced: Was it because she is a woman? Because she was leading the charge for financial accountability? Because of alleged harassment claims? Of course, it could be a combination of all. What we do know is that, ignited in the months before she became National Chief, money, gender, and harassment have formulated the enduring narrative arc of her leadership at AFN.
Over the past two years, we have actively witnessed how the first woman leader of the AFN has led and how she has been treated in her leadership. We, and others, have written privately to support and publicly defend her. Prompted by her ousting on June 28, 2023, at a virtual Special Chiefs Assembly, we are compelled to speak again of the events of the last few weeks and days.
The Special Assembly was called to address the findings of a human resource investigation into complaints against Archibald. (We don’t know if this is the same investigation from 2021). The meeting ended with her being removed from her position. A minority of eligible Chiefs attended the meeting, of which, a majority voted for her removal. Presented now with a newly appointed interim National Chief Joanna Bernard, many are still grappling with the sudden and shocking ousting.
Many status Indians had been pressing the AFN to reverse course on this. We were focused on trying to steer AFN toward good Indigenous governance and leadership practices with a humble but stalwart online petition. Presented for “status Indians” to consider (the AFN is a “status Indian” organization), the petition obtained 427 signatures in just a few days, with very little public profile.
Regional Chiefs were notified by email of the petition on July 7, 2023, with a final submission of the numbers of signatories being sent at 8:46 am AST on July 11. They were asked to circulate the petition to Chiefs and Councils. (We do not know if they did this).
The Regional Chiefs must have known First Nation status members were petitioning to have the duly-elected National Chief reinstated, to have a previous resolution to support her leadership from the June 28 assembly brought forth, and to ensure Indigenous best practice were being employed in internal human resource matters.
Reading Archibald’s statement posted to her professional FB page (June 10) about the appointment of an interim National Chief, we can’t help but wonder if a major reason for removing her was to squash her repeated call for a forensic financial audit of AFN. Interim National Chief Joanna Bernard has assured First Nations-in-Assembly that annual reports have been reviewed and there are no concerns. (NationTalk, July 10) AFN seems to be playing with semantics, supplanting “forensic audit” with “audited financial statements” because let’s be clear: a forensic audit is not a financial audit. The former investigates fraud or illegality; the latter is an annual review of finances. Apparently, in one of her first acts of leadership, Bernard implies to Chiefs and the public that they are the same.
Witnessing AFN’s refusal to consider resolutions that would address a significant wish to reinstate the former National Chief, and the swift acceptance of the existing agenda at the AFN’s meeting on July 11, 2023, fuels already robust speculation about the AFN’s treatment of the former National Chief. The findings of a report on gender and sexual-orientation-based discrimination within the AFN had been endorsed in December 2020. Chiefs were presented on day two of the present Assembly (July 12). Weeks after ousting her as National Chief, refusing to include a resolution for her reinstatement, and shutting her out of online access to the assembly despite being a proxy for Hornepayne First Nation, the public learned that “toxic behaviours exist at all levels of the AFN, including the secretariat, the executive, regional offices, and the national chief’s office”. (CBC, July 12, 2023)
As Ojibwe and Ktunaxa women respectively, and Indigenous feminist scholars, we understand how different circuits of power work, including in Indigenous organizations funded by the settler state. It hurts to witness the regalia in AFN’s annual general assembly and know that spiritually inspired, highly principled governance that such regalia suggests is not there. It’s unsettling to see our people carry on at the assembly as though nothing cataclysmic has happened. It’s worrisome to see our young leaders being socialized to do politics thusly. Is this trauma? Internalized colonization? Intentional political manipulation? Whatever the explanation, it feels like gaslighting and a failure of leadership. We know we would not want the young people in our lives to be mentored and trained in this way.
The politics that deposed RoseAnne Archibald in such a miserable fashion, for such opaque reasons, are embarrassing. This is not who we are collectively as Indigenous peoples who are the living legacy of our ancestors. It’s not how to behave, when we have inherited sophisticated methods of governance, laws, and healing from those who came before us and when we have the self-determining capability to create new ways that transcend those presented by the state. This is not how we are to treat each other.
Archibald’s experience is not how we demonstrate respect for Indigenous women. It’s not how we are to behave in private and most definitely not on the public stage. The AFN leadership knows that across our nations, our people are fighting to find and acknowledge missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and gender diverse peoples. Yet, through their actions, the AFN is endorsing the poor treatment of all Indigenous women by treating the former National Chief the way they have.
But then again, maybe this is who we have become, here in this place called Canada. This place that corralled us onto reserves under an Indian Act while at the same time signing treaties full of broken promises. This place that harnesses us with its laws and by-laws, budgets and bureaucratic expectations, it’s “rules of procedure”. These cages are meant to keep us under the control of the state; they are meant to discipline, assimilate, or extinguish us and our authentic power. Making Indigenous women go missing from their highly visible political roles is what happens when Indigenous women refuse to accommodate colonial power or abandon their principles.
Jody Wilson-Raybould entered the political arena and navigated similarly treacherous paths in a way that unabashedly stood upon and foregrounded Indigenous values, laws, and governance. These principles were meaningful to many Indigenous peoples and Canadians. She was subjected to the fiercest political scrutiny an Indigenous woman has faced in Canada. She made us proud; she makes us proud. We feel similarly about Archibald. The two political spheres they navigated are different, but their practices look the same and both have produced the same result.
The AFN is intimately tied to the federal government and has been since it was the National Indian Brotherhood. AFN National and Regional Chiefs are savvy about the positions, institutions, and systems of Canadian power. Perhaps AFN has adopted the unpleasant politics of the settler state as its own.
While we consider the AFN’s relevance, we wait for Canada to reject colonialism and embark on relationships with Indigenous peoples on a nations-to-nation basis where it can respect Indigenous governance orders that uphold Indigenous leaders regardless of gender. We wait for a Canada that can work effectively with authentic principled leaders such as the Jody Wilson-Rayboulds, RoseAnne Archibalds, Cindy Blackstocks, Ellen Gabriels, and Molly Wickhams of the world for the creation of a new Canada.
We want Indigenous organizations that can work them as well. While we wait, we continue to seek and expect transformative politics. We, and many, many others, petition. We petition creation and our own spirits; our kin and communities; we petition the teachings of the past, present, and future; and we petition authentic principled Indigenous leaders to keep the embers of our nations on our lands and waters glowing despite the overbearing oppression of the ugly politics still in play. This is good Indigenous governance, and it begins within each of us.
waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy, Ph.D. (Anishinaabe Nation, Lac Seul First Nation), Associate Professor, Gender Studies, University of Victoria
Joyce Green, Ph.D. (Ktunaxa Nation, Yaqit ʔa·knuqⱡiʔit First Nation), Professor Emerita, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Regina
The public version of the “Petition to Reinstate the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations” can be accessed at: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1okDdbZcFqjcKygzPEk2dMSpl0nccg-VD2sHg_FFLPoE/edit?usp=sharing