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Embattled former national chief says AFN ‘has gone off the rails,’ as leaders meet

The dramatic decision to remove RoseAnne Archibald as the first female leader of the largest First Nations advocacy organization in Canada “was not taken lightly,” its interim chief told a gathering on Tuesday, even as some continued pushing for the ousted leader to be reinstated.
AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald attends a commemorative ceremony, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, June 21. Hundreds of Indigenous leaders are gathering today in Halifax for the start of the AFN annual general assembly, where they will for the first time hear from their new interim national chief, following a tumultuous ousting of their former one. The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick

The dramatic decision to remove RoseAnne Archibald as the first female leader of the largest First Nations advocacy organization in Canada “was not taken lightly,” its interim chief told a gathering on Tuesday, even as some continued pushing for the ousted leader to be reinstated.

Joanna Bernard, a regional chief from New Brunswick who was tapped to serve in the role temporarily, addressed the Assembly of First Nations for the first time since Archibald’s removal over complaints that staff had filed about her conduct.

“We know the decision was not taken lightly and was a result of careful consideration by the leadership and representatives of our nations,” Bernard said in Halifax at the AFN’s annual general assembly.

Archibald, who was elected in 2021, appeared before the assembly virtually on Tuesday and accused the organization’s leadership of silencing the voices of those questioning her removal.

“It is a railroaded process that is unfair, that is not allowing for accountability for the political coup that happened against me by the regional chiefs,” she said.

She has called on chiefs and supporters to urge that the organization to reinstate her.

Archibald added she believes the organization “has gone off the rails.” An earlier statement said she may yet attend the gathering, which runs through Thursday, in person.

Bruce Archibald, chief of Taykwa Tagamou Nation in northwest Ontario, was one of three people who moved to reinstate the former chief at the wider gathering.

Her ouster was “very unfair,” he said. “I feel today that we’re ignoring the fact of what’s actually going on.”

The motions were not adopted.

Not all chiefs were present for the vote to remove Archibald. It happened June 28 at a special chiefs’ assembly held to address the findings of an investigation into five staff members’ complaints. Of the 231 chiefs who took part, 71 per cent voted to remove her.

An independent third-party review had concluded that some of Archibald’s behaviour amounted to harassment. Investigators also found she breached the organization’s policies by retaliating against complainants and failing to maintain confidentiality.

Terry Teegee, regional chief for British Columbia, told reporters on Tuesday that even if not all were present, chiefs made the decision — not members of the assembly’s executive committee, whom Archibald has accused of orchestrating her removal.

“We followed the rules, wherever it fell in terms of the vote, and that was decided by the chiefs.”

The fact Archibald was the first woman to hold the role as national chief has sent a chill over other female First Nations leaders, said Joyce Naytowhow McLeod, chief of Montreal Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan. She called the decision to remove Archibald “a disgrace,” adding it makes her feel “powerless.”

“The message is … just stay quiet, don’t voice anything,” she said. “We deal with that enough back home, as women chiefs.”

As chiefs prepare to elect a new permanent leader later in the year, Bernard told those gathered that she hopes to see “strong women leaders” come forward, but added they should select a candidate who is committed to unity regardless of their gender.

She said work was underway to address the shortcomings within the organization and “rebuilding staff morale,” pointing to efforts around bolstering its whistleblower policies, code of conduct and the process for reporting harassment.

Bernard pledged that the organization wanted to offer a “safe and supportive environment where all individuals can speak up without fear of retaliation.”

Archibald has alleged she was targeted for fighting corruption and demanding a financial audit.

Bernard expressed an openness during her speech Tuesday to Archibald’s push for a financial audit, saying the organization’s financial statements are audited annually, and rejected the former chief’s claims around problematic spending.

If a committee tasked with examining the issue believes a forensic audit is necessary, “we will follow that guidance,” Bernard said, adding she is committed to maintaining stability despite the challenging period of transition that now lies ahead.

Before the gathering got underway, the organization announced it was sharing the past decade’s worth of independent, audited financial statements, which it said “confirm the absence of any financial concerns.”

Teegee said it’s “disappointing” that the attention paid to Archibald’s leadership has meant slow progress on key files, including safe drinking water, housing, the drug crisis and climate change.

He rejected the belief that anything has been fully derailed, but acknowledged its turmoil has slowed the assembly’s work. “Over the next few days, hopefully we can pick up the slack.”

Annie Bernard-Daisley, co-chair of the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs, said during the opening of the assembly that it’s time to move on to more pressing issues.

“We have people in our community sitting in poverty, being murdered, a Winnipeg landfill not being searched,” she said. “The longer we delay, the less we will do for our own people. Let’s check our ego at the door and do our job.”

Garrison Settee, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, said it’s time to focus on the “dire situation” in First Nations communities.

“The chiefs are moving on,” he said.

Chiefs are meeting until Thursday to discuss issues including First Nations policing, self-governance legislation for Métis communities and access to safe drinking water.

The election of a new national chief in December and the appointment of a chief electoral officer are on the agenda, as well as speeches from federal ministers.

—By Marlo Glass, The Canadian Press, with files from Stephanie Taylor