Brett Forester
APTN National News

RoseAnne Archibald is the new national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

She becomes the first-ever woman to hold the post and first person from Ontario to lead the organization in four decades.

“You can tell all the women in your life that the glass ceiling has been broken,” Archibald exclaimed in a Thursday evening victory speech. “I thank all of the women who punched that ceiling before me and made a crack. You are an inspiration to me, all the women who walked this path ahead of me.”

Reginald Bellerose, long-time Muskowekwan First Nation chief in Saskatchewan, withdrew from the race after a marathon five-ballot runoff vote failed to produce a winner.

Archibald got 205 votes, or 50 percent of the 406 registered chiefs and proxies after round five. Bellerose lost 30 votes and secured 35 percent of the ballots. The threshold to win was 60 per cent.

Bellerose thanked his supporters and wished Archibald the best of luck. The chiefs made it clear they didn’t want back-to-back national leaders from Saskatchewan, Bellerose said.

“There’s disappointment, obviously,” he remarked. “But not going in to the next ballot does not mean we’re giving up and you won’t see another Saskatchewan representative. I think Canada needs to continue to see Saskatchewan representatives.”

Archibald and Bellerose were deadlocked after two rounds. Bellerose pulled ahead after round three late Wednesday following the elimination of former Manitoba regional chief Kevin Hart.

Alvin Fiddler, grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation in Ontario, withdrew following the third ballot. Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse, executive director of the Yellowhead Indigenous Education Foundation in Alberta, received the fewest votes and was eliminated.

Both urged their supporters to vote for Archibald, tilting the scale in her favour and setting the stage for an 11th-hour push. She grabbed the lead following round four but still only got 50 per cent of the ballots.

Archibald then publicly asked Bellerose to concede in a Facebook post as round five began.

“We saw yesterday that Grand Chief Fiddler, out of great love for women, particularly his daughters, has made room and space for me to become the first woman National Chief,” she said. “Reg, please follow Alvin’s honourable path forward.”

But Bellerose refused, replying that he planned to stay in the race with a post of his own.

“Our Saskatchewan Women Leadership have encouraged our team to move forward,” he said. “We have led in the previous 3 ballots and know we have strong support across this country.”

Bellerose withdrew after round six was announced.

Many prominent women over the years mounted bids to become national chief but none succeeded until now.

“The AFN has made herstory today,” Archibald told the livestream after reciting the oath of office. “The chiefs have made history and herstory. It’s time for change on so many levels.”

Archibald’s 30-year journey in First Nations politics has included many firsts. She was elected chief of Taykwa Tagamou Nation at age 23, the first woman to hold that role. She was also elected the first woman and youngest NAN deputy grand chief and Mushkegowuk Council grand chief.

She was the first woman Ontario regional chief and served since 2018. But this tenure was not without controversy. Archibald was the subject of an independent probe after AFN staff accused her of bullying and harassment.

She characterized the probe as reprisal for her months-long push for transparency, accountability and internal reform. But the AFN said a preliminary review deemed the allegations credible, and the executive chiefs voted to commission the investigation that concluded in May.

Archibald was appointed to Ontario’s vaccine-distribution task force last December, and Premier Doug Ford often touts his “incredible relationship” with Archibald when pressed on First Nations issues.

The AFN lobbies and advocates on behalf 634 First Nations chiefs across the country who each get a vote in selecting the national chief. More than 900,000 registered First Nations individuals across the country don’t get to vote.

Archibald now faces the daunting task of building consensus among the chiefs as well as regaining credibility for the organization among the grassroots.

She’ll have to hit the ground running with a snap fall federal election rumoured to be on the horizon alongside several pressing files of which recovering from a deadly pandemic is only one.

The AFN is currently involved in child-welfare issues such as human rights tribunal litigation, legislation asserting First Nations jurisdiction over kids in care, and a class action against Canada seeking damages for kids unnecessarily scooped from their homes.

The organization has lobbied Ottawa to lift on-reserve boil-water advisories, close the infrastructure gap, end violence against Indigenous women and implement legislation on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

Perry Bellegarde and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were elected in 2014 and 2015 respectively and often appeared to be in lockstep throughout their twin tenures. Each referred to the other as a friend when Bellegarde announced in December he wouldn’t seek a third term.

One of Bellegarde’s policy platforms was renewing the fiscal relationship between First Nations and the Crown, and, on his way out, he pointed to the Liberals’ $45-billion Indigenous spend over six budgets as one indicator of the AFN’s impact.

The AFN election is being hosted on Six Nations of Grand River and Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation territory in Toronto, but voting occurred virtually because of the pandemic.

Dark-horse hopefuls Cathy Martin of Listuguj in Quebec and Lee Crowchild from Alberta were eliminated after round one.

Voting on the resolutions that delegate the national chief a lobbying mandate were scheduled for Thursday afternoon but were pushed back due to the runoff voting.

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