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Updated: This article has been updated to reflect actions on the final day of the general assembly.

Miles Morrisseau
ICT

After making a dramatic entry with drums and singers to the Assembly of First Nations annual gathering in Canada, National Chief RoseAnne Archibald stood down an attempt to remove her from the organization amid growing internal disputes.

Archibald, the first woman elected to lead the group that represents more than 600 First Nations across Canada, won a vote by the full assembly on Tuesday, July 5, that stopped the efforts to suspend her. A vote of non-confidence in Archibald's leadership was then withdrawn without a vote. 

Speaking to the press after the vote, the national chief continued to call for financial accountability.

“The whole system at AFN has a financial corruption that needs to be fixed,” she said.

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Archibald was suspended June 17, one day after issuing a sharply worded statement calling for an independent investigation and a forensic audit of the organization, including a $1 million buy-out request from four staff members that she had opposed.

The organization already had launched an internal human resources investigation into complaints by the four senior staff members against Archibald.

“I want to go further than having the AFN investigate itself,” Archibald said in the statement on June 16. “I am calling for a forensic audit and an independent inquiry into the conduct of the AFN over the last eight years. I believe this investigation will help to identify the toxicity within our organization and bring about a healing and cultural shift that is critically needed.”

The statement ended with a cliffhanger.

“In the coming days more information will be revealed,” she said. “What was done in darkness shall always find its way into the light.”

The next day, however, for the first time in the history of the organization, the national chief was suspended by the executive committee and board of directors.

“The decision to suspend the national chief was prompted by her public statement issued on June 16, 2022, that breached her obligations to the AFN – contrary to her Oath of Office, the organization’s Code of Conduct and AFN Whistleblower Policy,” according to a statement released by the organization.

Archibald was likewise prohibited from attending the annual general assembly, which began Juy 5 and continues through July 7, and the chief’s assembly meeting. But supporters joined her in entering the meeting Tuesday, and she was allowed to take a seat at the head table.

Before the vote of support, Archibald spoke out to the assembly about the accusations leveled against her.

“I’m not suspended because of [a human resources] investigation,” she said. “I am suspended because I am speaking the truth … I refused to give $1 million plus to staff and a staff payout. I refused. I knew it was wrong.”

She called the attacks on her as symptomatic of the violence Indigenous women experience.

“As you look at me as a first woman national chief, undergoing this kind of lateral violence, you must call upon this love that you have for your wives, your daughters, your granddaughters, your mothers, your aunties,” she said. “You must call upon that love and say this lateral violence will stop.”

She called for change within the organization.

“Let's set up a chiefs’ leadership council so you can take back this organization,” she said. “We need to establish a new corporation based in our culture and values, based in our seven sacred teachings.”

Waning solidarity

The dispute went public just a week before the organization was set to celebrate 40 years of solidarity among the First Nations people of Canada.

The assembly was formed in 1982, and one of its first actions was to form a national advocacy group calling for Aboriginal Solidarity Day to be celebrated each year on June 21. It is now known as National Indigenous Peoples Day and is celebrated widely across the country.

Archibald was elected national chief on July 8, 2021 – the first woman ever to lead the assembly. She had previously served as Ontario regional chief and was elected chief of Taykwa Tagamou Nation in 1990.

"Today is a victory, and you can tell all the women in your life that the glass ceiling has been broken,” Archibald told delegates after her win in 2021. “I thank all of the women who punched that ceiling before me and made a crack.”

This year, however, while approaching her first year in office, Archibald sent out the June 16 revealing the infighting underneath the façade of solidarity.

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“I have spent my 33 years in leadership cleaning up political messes,” she said. “I stand for truth, transparency and accountability. I campaigned to bring these values to the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and that is why I was elected.”

She continued, “The AFN cannot continue to conduct internal business as it has been. This is not the Healing Path Forward I envisioned for our organization or our peoples. The backroom deals, the large payouts to staff and other documented incidents of corruption and collusion has caused us to lose sight of our shared goal.”

She then took to social media after her phone and gmail accounts were shut down following the suspension in what her lawyer, Aaron Detlor, called “the beginning of a seemingly staged coup by regional chiefs.”

Archibald asked an Ontario court to throw out the suspension, but the court decided on June 30, the Ontario court decided not to rule on the legality of the suspension, setting up the showdown at the annual gathering.

AFN Regional Chief Paul Prosper, who has been the lead spokesperson for the AFN during the crisis, praised the court’s decision.

“This decision, in our view, properly declined to intervene in the Executive Committee’s decision to suspend the National Chief, and does not support the claims that our actions were illegal or outside our authority,” Prosper said. “We are sorry that the National Chief chose the path of colonial court confrontation to resolve this.”

Prosper was elected regional chief for Newfoundland and Nova Scotia despite calls from both The Nova Scotia Native Women's Association and the Native Women's Association of Canada that it was time for a female chief to be appointed for the region. Prosper told CBC news after his election that he intends to be an advocate for women.

"I have a deep and profound respect for Mi'kmaw women, and women generally,” he told CBC News. “I look forward to having that opportunity to prove that, to represent their interests in the best way I can.”

The other key figure for the assembly is Janice Ciavaglia, the assembly’s chief executive officer who oversees the administration and to whom the majority of staff reports. Ciavaglia, a teacher, is one of the most powerful people in First Nations government.

Ciavaglia spent her early teaching years in Northern Ontario, but most of her career was in Nova Scotia working with Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey as a literacy consultant, according to her biography on the EdCAN network, Canada’s oldest teachers organization.

Taking the vote

As the assembly neared its July 5 opening, a number of chiefs and regional organizations came out in support of the Archibald, and she drew support from social media.

“The actions of the AFN executive committee and board of directors are absolutely

shameful,” said Chief Joe Alphonse, tribal chair for the Tŝilhqot’in National Government, in a statement. “Chiefs across the country elected National Chief Archibald – let her do her job. It is past due to shake up AFN as an organization. National Chief Archibald, the first female to ever hold this position, is a force for change that I have always supported.”

Nahanni Fontaine, a member of the Manitoba Legislature, took to Twitter on June 27 to speak out against misogyny in the AFN.

“The Assembly of First Nations has had male leaders who’ve cheated on their wives; sat back while women staff were sexually harassed; tried to keep NWAC [Native Women’s Association of Canada] out of meetings; turned a blind eye to chiefs sexists behaviours, etc. Not one was ever suspended. Gotta love patriarchy.”

Ginger Gosnell-Myers voice similar concerns on a June 18 post on Twitter.

“I was a youth rep w the AFN,” she tweeted. “I witnessed & experienced the normalized unsafe space it was for women. I also was part of mtgs where $ was openly discussed, perks for Executive members, car/driver $, housing $, etc. NC Archibald is exposing this culture, hence her suspension.”

On July 5, as the chiefs and their proxies gathered at the Vancouver Convention Centre in British Columbia, tensions began to build: Would the national chief be allowed into the meeting. Would she be given a seat at the table? Would she be allowed to speak? Would her suspension be upheld?

Archibald answered the questions with the dramatic entry, and organizers found a seat for her at the table.

“I walked in the grand entry with dignity&grace,” she tweeted. “Eventually, my space at the head table was created & my name tag arrived & I offered positive welcoming comments. Proves that I’m NOT suspended & my calls for #transparency #accountability & #truth will be heard. #AFNForensicAuditNow”

Prosper, the regional chief, also addressed the Assembly about the allegations against the national chief.

“There are a number of stories, a number of narratives that's around this investigation and suspension,” he said. “And there is a truth to be had. Through the findings of the investigation, now it will take time.”

The motion to support the suspension, however, went to a full vote of the assembly and was defeated. The vote was not taken publicly; reports from the floor say the announcement was met with loud cheers.

The remainder of the assembly will include updates from all the regional chiefs from across the country representing the 10 provinces and two territories. Current resolutions include discussion on First Nations participation in the implementation on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

On Thursday, July 7, the assembly chiefs voted to approve the financial audit and the investigation of the organization. Leaders announced afterward that 75 percent of the chiefs had supported the reviews. 

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