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AFN’s toxic politics hurts First Nations

First Nations women may think twice before letting their names stand in a future election

Indigenous PoliticsFeminism

Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald. Photo courtesy Kamloops This Week.

How it started.

One year ago, RoseAnne Archibald from Taykwa Tagamou Nation in northern Ontario made history, becoming the first woman to be elected national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). This was no small feat. In the 54 years since the creation of the National Indian Brotherhood and then the AFN, First Nations chiefs have only ever elected men to the position.

How it’s going.

Archibald made history yet again, only this time it is because she is the first national chief to be “suspended.” Just weeks before the AFN’s Annual General Assembly (AGA), the executive committee and board of directors voted to suspend her for alleged breaches of policy. She was even removed from the official agenda for this week’s AGA. While none of us know all the facts, this isn’t a good look for the AFN—no matter how this plays out. What’s more, the situation is rife with sexism.

The executive committee of the AFN, made up of the national chief and the regional chiefs, issued a press release on June 17 indicating that the national chief was suspended with pay. But this is where the facts start to get fuzzy. On the one hand, the press release says Archibald’s suspension was prompted by her public statements about the AFN. Yet, the same release references an investigation into four complaints against her as the reason for her suspension.

These are two separate matters—so which is it?

If it’s about her public political statements about problems that need to be addressed at the AFN, those seem to fall within the realm of politics. In Canada, opposition parties critique governments all the time. Even ministers within various governments can and have spoken out about problems within their own administrations. That’s politics. Archibald literally campaigned on fixing problems within the AFN and committed to making the organization more transparent. She didn’t do any of this subversively. In fact, one of the resolutions from last year’s AGA called for more transparency around AFN fiscal policies and practices, especially in relation to contracts.

However, if the issue is really about the investigation into these four complaints, that’s an internal human resource issue, normally addressed by a supervisor, manager, human resource director, or even a CEO—not by either the executive or the chiefs in assembly. The executive’s conflicting messages might lead one to wonder if this really is, as Archibald has claimed, a political coup? This is very possible, given that the AFN’s problems with Archibald started long before she was elected as national chief.

In February 2021, Archibald put out a press release in which she responded to confidential information about her that was “leaked” to the press relating to alleged harassment of AFN staff. The harassment claim came only one day after the Chiefs of Ontario passed a resolution seeking an independent financial review of the AFN. Archibald’s press release also noted that she and “other female members of the AFN Executive Committee” have previously complained about gender-based harassment and discrimination, to no avail. Archibald’s contention at that time, was that the AFN’s actions appeared to be retaliation for her seeking to expose the AFN’s alleged financial improprieties.

Archibald offered to either be part of a healing circle with the affected staff or participate in a fair and independent investigation. Far from a fair and independent process, it appears that these issues have spilled over into Archibald’s term as national chief. In response to allegations of bullying and harassment made against Archibald by four AFN staff members, the AFN locked Archibald out of her own emails, shut off her phone, and told her she could neither speak to the media nor attend the AGA. These punitive actions, taken prior to knowing the results of a workplace investigation, are remarkable to say the least.

In the words of Doug Cuthand, a member of Little Pine First Nation and columnist for the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, “The executive committee has come down on the national chief like a coup in a banana republic.” He considers this to be the “worst crisis” in the organization’s history and calls on the chiefs to take back their organization:

This ham-fisted action is not only unprofessional, but it is a violation of national Chief Archibald’s human rights. Chief Archibald is the first woman to head the organization and misogyny is an elephant in the room.

Similarly, Niigaan Sinclair, a member of Peguis First Nation and a columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press, agrees and says the AFN has created a “constitutional crisis and civil war” in its “petty” actions against the democratically-elected Archibald. With reports of the AFN possibly hiring a security firm to keep Archibald out of the AGA this week, Sinclair calls this a “colossal embarrassment” for an organization that has been losing support amongst First Nations.

There has been mixed reaction from First Nation chiefs, some whom support the AFN and some whom stand behind Archibald. But quite aside from whether one likes or dislikes her politics, anyone who thinks this is about Archibald lacking political acumen or experience, doesn’t know her history. She was elected as the first woman chief of her First Nation when she was only 23 years old. From there she went on to become the first woman deputy grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, and grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Council. She also made history when she went on to be elected as the first woman regional chief in Ontario. Even her successful election as the first woman national chief at the AFN was not easy. She had to compete with six other candidates and go through five rounds of voting until her closest competitor conceded—a common practice at AFN elections.

Archibald has been making her own path in politics despite the grim statistics around women—and especially Indigenous and other racialized women—being disproportionately impacted by barriers to politics, like harassment and violence, inside and outside their institutions. These barriers are not just from men, though men are disproportionately represented in political positions. There is also an “authority gap” between men and women, whereby the former are praised for their assertiveness, confidence, and take-charge approach. Yet, when women act this way, they are seen as abrasive, overbearing or bullying—even by other women. Sexism, misogyny, discrimination, and harassment against women in politics has a long history and often acts as a major barrier for women to even consider entering the political sphere. Indigenous organizations are no more insulated from this paternalistic thinking than any other organization.

Is that what is at play here? We may never know, but the AFN’s very public actions seem to treat Archibald differently than past national chiefs, even when these men were embroiled in controversy. Whether this is an obvious situation of sexism in politics or not, it is clear that the AFN’s actions have poisoned any potential future investigations into staff complaints against Archibald. She has been held out as guilty, punished as though she is guilty, and may in fact lose her post as national chief due to this political circus manufactured by the AFN. While they have attempted to backtrack and say that Archibald is only suspended from the board, this doesn’t explain their actions to cut her off from the chiefs, which is a political act. When confronted with reports it was planning to hire a security firm to keep Archibald away, the AFN backpedaled again and said she is welcome to attend the AGA (but recent versions of the agenda have removed her from the schedule).

No matter how you slice it, the AFN has created a monumental mess that, ironically, proves the very dysfunction many First Nations have been talking about for years. The AFN has effectively appointed itself as the judge, jury, and executioner of Archibald’s political career as national chief. In so doing, not only has the organization breached her basic human rights against sex-based discrimination, but also her basic legal rights to administrative and procedural fairness.

The AFN has essentially convicted Archibald in the eyes of First Nations and the public, and biased any possible chance at fixing this situation. Was all this in response to Archibald wanting to expose financial improprieties at the AFN? We’ll never know, unless enough chiefs take their organization back and review the books. What we do know is that the political verdict has been made by the AFN and the political result may well be Archibald’s removal or resignation. If she is subsequently found to have bullied staff at the AFN, she will have already been punished many times over, instead of having had the benefit of confidentiality, performance counselling, or even progressive discipline as is common in these types of staffing cases.

The worst part about all this is that the AFN has forgotten all about the very real life and death issues faced by First Nations people on the ground: unmarked graves, the foster care crisis, skyrocketing incarceration rates, police killings of First Nations, murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, and the chronic lack of access to water, housing, social supports and health care in many First Nations. Our land defenders and water protectors are harassed and arrested on a daily basis, and we continue to have to fight for our basic human rights.

In the hours leading up to the start of the AGA, grassroots First Nations are preparing a welcoming ceremony for Archibald, while the AFN has once again changed the agenda—this time to create an hour for the national chief and the executive to make competing addresses to the chiefs in assembly. After that, there is slated to be a vote of non-confidence. Even if the AFN “wins” and gets rid of Archibald, we have all lost. The AFN will have made our efforts as public educators and advocates much harder for many years to come, and First Nations women may think twice before letting their names stand in a future election.

Pam Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick. She is a longtime CD columnist, and has been a practicing lawyer for 20 years. Currently, Pam is a Professor and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Toronto Metropolitan University.


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