Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
In her 2022 memoir My Privilege, My Responsibility, Sheila North wrote about the sexism and bullying she faced while running for the highest leadership positions in a number of First Nations organizations, including the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).
But that prior experience hasn’t stopped North from entering the AFN race for national chief a second time. She was runner-up to Perry Bellegarde, who won his second term in the AFN top job in 2018.
“I'm looking forward to working with chiefs that value everyone in the circle, and I'm looking forward to having conversations around inclusivity and respect,” said North of the Bunibonibee Cree Nation in Manitoba.
North was in the assembly of chiefs in Halifax when former national chief RoseAnne Archibald was being voted out of office. At that same time, North was being encouraged by chiefs, knowledge keepers and former chiefs to consider running again, she said.
North didn’t answer right away, preferring a “measured approach” in light of Archibald’s difficulties, which involved allegations of harassment of staff and breaching the organization’s whistleblower policy.
“I came home and considered everything. Considered the work that I was doing at the time and considered the people and the things that I've learned, and so I feel I am in a good place in a good space to accept the challenge to run again,” she said.
North, appointed this past February as director of the International Commission on Missing Persons, has stepped back from that position to run in the AFN election Dec. 6.
In 2015, she became the first woman to serve as grand chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO).
With MKO, North says they looked at 30 years of resolutions from the northern Manitoba nations to determine what themes kept coming up. Health was the number one issue. And North says she was “relentless” when speaking with the federal health minister. The result was the creation of Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin to support health transformation for First Nations in northern Manitoba.
“That kind of thinking is what we, I believe, need to do at the AFN level to see what has been said, what has been done, what can we do, what is possible?” she said.
And any changes within the organization will be up to chiefs on direction from their communities.
“I think we have to move at a pace where our people are at, or our chiefs are at. And I think that there are new ways that are also our old ways of governing ourselves and our people,” said North.
She says it’s time for the AFN to start working for the chiefs and the communities and not the other way around.
In the recent past, she contends, not only have the chiefs and communities been working for the AFN, but the AFN has become an administration arm of the federal government.
“I can't discount that there has been good work and that there has been progress, even with this current federal government. I can't dismiss that.” But she says the AFN need to get back to “the real basics of who we are and what our people have said all along, and that is to govern ourselves and have an organization that supports that.”
North says the AFN can be made more relevant by being responsive to needs, which will require an examination beyond anecdotes and reports about deficiencies in the organization from news articles.
“I've talked to probably close to 200 chiefs across the country so far and, honestly, most of the calls, probably half of the calls, the chief is either going to a funeral, is coming back from a funeral or preparing for a funeral of untimely deaths like, unfortunately, suicides and people dealing with mental health and drugs and addiction. And it's startling,” she said.
The after-effects of the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with the present global economic crisis, means worsening pressure on people who were already feeling deprived, she says.
“We need to find out what the magnitude is and start to build concrete action plans around what we can do based on First Nations’ needs and the whole old adage of ‘nothing about us without us,’” said North.
Determining the state of affairs of First Nations will be North’s first order of business.
“Let's figure that out and work from there. Start building solutions and match them with the natural laws and the governance structures that our Indigenous people have inherently,” she said.
That includes the legal framework to start their own police forces, she says.
Supporting rights holders, both those with and without treaties, to manage their own affairs and govern their own communities, is another key priority, North said.
She says support from the AFN will come from building relationships with First Nations communities, governments, the general public, and at the international level.
She said a possible change in the federal government is on everyone’s mind, referring to the Conservative Party making gains in polls, surpassing the federal governing Liberals. An election may not happen until 2025, but the AFN has to be ready.
“Chiefs want to be prepared for any scenario and I would like AFN to be prepared for any scenario as well,” she said.
Preparation involves gathering information from, and sharing information with, communities to help them make decisions.
“It gives me hope, too, because it feels like our people, our grassroots people, are able to respond in those situations to when a government is not necessarily working with First Nations. Our people know what to do,” said North.
She points to the Idle No More movement in response to policies and legislation during the time of former prime minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. The success of that movement helped lead to a landslide victory for Trudeau’s Liberals in 2015.
North stresses that interaction with any federal government will be done in a “very, very respectful way.”
“When we build relationships, I think that's where changes happen. Real changes,” said North.
She points to residential school survivors speaking up, which led to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
And there was work undertaken by family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, which became an election issue in 2015 and led to a national inquiry.
Relationship building also requires mending fences, and among those relationships to be mended is the one with Alberta First Nations.
North understands that Alberta nations have their reasons for not wanting to be part of the organization.
“I think that the doors have to remain open on the AFN side…I think there has to be an effort from the AFN to always try to repair that relationship and keep…the dialogue going and make AFN work for Alberta chiefs and the Treaty 8 chiefs,” she said.
What that will look like needs to be explored, she says.
“I respect their decision but also hope that we can get back to a place where we can talk about what has happened and what we can do to prevent it in the future.”
North says a motivating factor in her decision to run again is becoming a grandmother.
“Being a kokum calls you to a different level of life,” said North, whose grandson accompanied her when she made her nomination announcement.
“I have a long view…I have a look to the future, and I understand more that term about the seven generations and looking ahead at what that looks like.”
She also has hope.
“When you look back at our generations, our people have survived so much. If we keep going and not give up, I think my grandson will have a better future than my kids and I did, and my grandparents. So that's my hope and I am motivated by our grandchildren and I'm looking forward to having the opportunity to pull that together with everyone else and look at our nation as a family.”
For more information on Sheila North visit https://www.sheilanorth.ca/
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