Thousands of delegates gathered for the annual Assembly of First Nations meeting Tuesday to talk about the Pope’s visit, Indigenous rights, housing and other priorities, but those issues were upstaged by claims of corruption and infighting over the leadership of National Chief RoseAnne Archibald.
Dressed in Indigenous regalia, Archibald strode into the Assembly of First Nations gathering in Vancouver ahead of a group of chanting supporters.
Just the day before, Archibald said she had been “erased” from the agenda after her suspension by the executive committee June 17 while an investigation was underway into four complaints against her by her staff.
Instead, Archibald led opening ceremonies, welcomed attendees and spoke to delegates.
“I am your representative. I am your servant. I only exist because all of you put me in this position, so an attack on me is an attack on you,” she told more than 2,000 delegates Tuesday. “It is your authority to determine what happens the national chief. You elected me, not the regional chiefs. You determine what discipline I face.”
Archibald alleges she was suspended for trying to investigate corruption within the assembly and called for a forensic audit of the organization for the last eight years.
She said it comes after “decades” of calls for reform within the organization.
“When you support me, you will be fighting against corruption,” Archibald said.
Before her address, the Assembly of First Nations executive urged delegates in a statement not to allow the human resource complaints involving Archibald to “overshadow the real and ongoing work that is required on behalf of the First Nations people.”
“The committee further calls on the national chief to immediately cease any actions and statements that amount to serious breaches of the confidentiality and privacy interests of AFN employees, service providers and others, including making broad allegations of misconduct,” the statement said.
The executive believes the actions are damaging, unlawful and inappropriate, the statement said.
Archibald has said her suspension is a violation of the assembly’s charter and a means to intimidate, punish and silence her over her claims of the possible misuse of public funds by the assembly.
“Obviously, I’m calling on our friends for an audit and an independent investigation into the AFN and I’m asking chiefs and grassroots people to talk to their chiefs to ensure that a forensic audit happens as well as an independent investigation into the corruption and toxicity at AFN,” she said before she entered the assembly Tuesday.
Chief Paul Prosper, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland AFN regional chief, called on chiefs and their proxies in attendance to validate the executive’s decision to allow for Archibald’s temporary suspension to continue until the investigation concludes.
“There has been calls for a forensic audit and my colleagues are not opposed to a forensic audit. We welcome it if you welcome it,” he said.
“No organization is perfect. We all face our own unique challenges and yes, as an organization we can improve that we must improve.”
Archibald said in her address that she wants audits in two areas: staff payouts and contracts.
“Millions of dollars have been paid in staff payouts,” she said. “That’s what the forensic audit will show you. You will see how money that is meant for you and your communities has been going into somebody else’s pocket.”
Musqueam Chief Wayne Sparrow, in whose territory the meeting is being held, asked in his opening statement that all attendees be respectful.
“When I came in, I had some of the elders come up. There were some signs that were there that are not appropriate in our territory. No matter what your opinion is, to see words like that is very hurtful to our elders and our leadership,” he said.
A draft resolution before the assembly asks that Archibald be removed from the office and a new election be held because she didn’t receive the required 60 per cent of votes cast when she was elected last year.
Archibald could be ousted if the motion is passed, Prosper said in an interview.
“That’s the great thing about these assemblies. It affords the opportunity for people to come together and discuss these very important issues so they can be dealt with and then we could move on to the more important issues at hand like housing, like education, the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous people. Those issues are the real issues that matter within our communities,” he said.
Chief Wendy Jocko of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation asked the assembly to immediately end to the “unsubstantiated and unlawful suspension” of Archibald.
“We must answer this with a full, independent investigation into the AFN secretariat and divisional chiefs. Someone must be held accountable for the treatment of our duly elected national chief,” she said Tuesday following Archibald’s address.
The assembly meeting’s theme is “walking the healing path,” and comes a day after the AFN announced a $20-billion settlement to compensate First Nations children and their families over the harms caused by chronic underfunding of child welfare on reserves.
AFN regional chief Cindy Woodhouse, the lead negotiator on the child welfare agreement for the assembly, said the leadership issue isn’t affecting her work.
“First Nations go through turbulent times at times, but I know that we’ve been through so many things historically and I think that this work is so important that it will keep moving forward.”
—Brieanna Charlebois, The Canadian Press