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Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

AFN’s turfing of RoseAnne Archibald undermines good Indigenous governance

“It is hard to know how the AFN expects First Nation members to trust its leadership and governance when it behaves how it does”

Indigenous PoliticsFeminism

Former AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald. Photo from Facebook.

On June 28, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) held a virtual Special Chiefs Assembly to address the findings of a human resources investigation into allegations of workplace harassment against National Chief RoseAnne Archibald. It is unclear whether chiefs had an agenda in advance, indicating that the national chief would be subject to a vote on her removal from office. Of the 634 chiefs or proxies who comprise the voting members of the AFN, 268 attended the virtual assembly. This is less than half of eligible voters. Of those participating, 131 voted in favour of removing Archibald from her position, 62 voted against her removal, and six abstained.

The decision to depose the national chief was not made by a majority of AFN member chiefs. And while human resources matters are typically handled internally, in this case the alleged violations were dealt with at a special assembly, resulting in the first female chief to lead the AFN being unseated by a minority of eligible voters. Joanna Bernard of Madawaska First Nation was subsequently appointed interim national chief. In response, Archibald issued a statement via her Facebook page on July 10.

The AFN, an advocacy organization comprised of and representing First Nation chiefs (who are the only voting members) must be relied upon to operate under good Indigenous governance principles. The AFN must also employ practices that draw on Indigenous governance traditions, honour our ancestors, and respect all members of our communities. There is really no mechanism, however, for status Indians to speak to AFN politics and practices apart from through chiefs and proxies. This is unsatisfying from the perspectives of both Western democratic and traditional Indigenous political traditions, the latter of which rely heavily on thorough community consultations and on finding consensus positions.

The numbers in attendance at the Special Chiefs Assembly gave the appearance of a stacked meeting. Moreover, the context in which the meeting took place, which includes a pending financial audit that Archibald campaigned on, cannot be ignored. Will Archibald’s removal disrupt the audit? Might that be perceived as part of the motivation to dump her? What will happen to the financial audit under the leadership of the new interim national chief?

The AFN and its predecessor, the National Indian Brotherhood, had been led exclusively by men until Archibald’s election. The fact that Archibald was the first woman to hold the role of national chief cannot be ignored. While some AFN leaders have stated the decision to unseat Archibald was not about gender, we are unconvinced. We know that gender, like race, class, and colonialism, is part of the stuctural forms of oppression that shape social relationships. Indigenous people are not immune to these forces. Regarding Indigenous women, the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (2019) demonstrates clearly how sexism and misogyny have infected public institutions as well as private life. They cannot be ruled out in this matter.

Without presuming to know all the politics or the facts of alleged harassment made against Archibald (whom we do not know and have not met), we note that the organizing tactics of the Special Assembly where she was ousted appears to be problematic. Accountability requires transparency in all facets of political life, including in the scheduling of meetings, of agenda making, and of significant motions such as deposing a national chief.

We seek transparency in the AFN’s decision-making processes and accountability for the decisions to date. There is no mechanism for First Nation status members to raise these issues with AFN leaders or with the chiefs. In light of this, a petition that, in part, called on the AFN to reinstate the national chief, and to support her to fulfill her term was started on July 7. This is our most effective means of demonstrating a measure of dissatisfaction and articulation of what we want. It is not a very powerful tool, but it is at least something, a means of speaking to this issue. It also demonstrates that there is no avenue for individuals to seek accountability from AFN politicians—that is exclusively in the hands of chiefs.

The regional chiefs were advised via email of the petition on June 7, and provided the link. They were also given copies of the petition, complete with signatures, again on July 10 and then at the start of the business day on July 11. The petition garnered 427 signatures. The move to appoint an interim chief in the context of a public petition being circulated to have the former duly elected national chief re-seated is obtuse. The move to elect an interim chief adds another layer of electoral bureaucracy. It is hard to know how the AFN expects First Nation members to trust its leadership and governance when it behaves how it does.

We want the AFN to practice and model good Indigenous governance. We urge all parties to set aside personal grievances. We recommend a focus on future generations and on Indigenous women, Two Spirit and gender diverse people, who have historically been rendered silent or invisible by the Indian Act, by colonial presumptions, and within our advocacy organizations. We encourage the AFN to be curious about why, until Archibald’s election, it had only been led by men. We hope the AFN will reflect on why it struggled so significantly, both within the organization and on the public stage, with its first female national chief. We want a politics informed by our Indigenous histories and traditions, but above all, we want a politics for future generations—which is what Indigenous politics have traditionally focused on.

waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy is makwa odoodem (bear clan) from Obiishkikaang Lac Seul First Nation in northwestern Ontario and Island Lake, a forested and lake-d area north of Bawating Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

Joyce Green is a professor emerita of political science at the University of Regina. She is also a member of the Ktunaxa Nation, and a band member of Yaqit ʔa·knuqⱡiʔit (Tobacco Plains).

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