As the Assembly of First Nations elects a new chief, who’s running and how does the election work?

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Assembly of First Nations (AFN) chiefs will try to finally move past years of top-level turmoil this week in Ottawa as they gather to elect a new national chief.

The recent leadership controversy has thrown the 55-year-old organization’s credibility into question, so much will be at stake.

After her dramatic ouster in June this year, former national chief RoseAnne Archibald pressed hard for reinstatement but returned quietly to private life after receiving an icy response at the AFN’s July chiefs meeting in Halifax. 

Archibald was found to have engaged in harassment twice by an outside probe, allegations Archibald denied and rejected as political reaction to her anti-corruption campaign.

Woman in headdress speaks at a microphone and podium.
RoseAnne Archibald was elected AFN national chief in 2021, the first woman to hold the post, but was voted out of office following bullying and harassment allegations in 2023. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

The embattled Cree leader’s troubled tenure was one of firsts — from the first woman national chief to the first national chief officially voted out of office — and the field is now wide open for those running to replace her.

What is the AFN?

The AFN is a national advocacy organization for First Nations chiefs, who represent more than a million people from more than 630 communities.

It was founded as the National Indian Brotherhood in 1968 as the Pierre Trudeau government prepared to release its infamous White Paper, a policy plan to assimilate First Nations into mainstream society. 

The brotherhood morphed into the AFN in 1982, still battling Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals, after the organization helped enshrine Aboriginal rights in Canada’s Constitution.

The AFN is not a government that delivers services to communities, but is touted by supporters as a commanding presence on the national political scene that can exert influence over public affairs through advocacy.

On the other hand, its toughest critics paint it as a policy advancement vehicle for the federal government, leading to allegations of coziness and rubber stamping of the colonial agenda.

Only chiefs get a say in AFN affairs, sparking frequent suggestions the group is out of touch with grassroots people.

Who is running?

Five hopefuls from the Prairies and one from Ontario are candidates for the national chief title this year.

Reginald Bellerose, runner up to Archibald in 2021, served 17 years as Muskowekwan First Nation chief in Saskatchewan and eight years as chair of Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority, which is affiliated with the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN).

Craig Makinaw is a former chief of Ermineskin Cree Nation, former grand chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations, and former AFN Alberta regional chief. He is a founding member of Natural Law Energy, which promotes Indigenous inclusion in resource development and green energy initiatives. 

Sheila North (Wikahsko Iskwew), a leader and policy advocate from Bunibonibee Cree Nation in Manitoba, is the former grand chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak and a former journalist. She recently released a memoir, My Privilege, My Responsibility.

David Pratt, a citizen of Muscowpetung First Nation in Saskatchewan, is the first vice-chief with FSIN who helped establish the First Nations Health Ombudsperson in the province, a first of its kind office in Canada. 

Flags from First Nations stand in a convention centre hall.
Flags from First Nations participating at the 44th Assembly of First Nations annual general assembly in Halifax in July. (Greg Bruce/CBC)

Dean Sayers, former chief of Batchewana First Nation in Ontario for nearly two decades, recently served as one of the lead negotiators for the $10-billion Robinson Huron Treaty annuities settlement for 21 Anishinaabe communities.

Cindy Woodhouse, of the Anishinaabe community of Pinaymootang First Nation in Manitoba, is the AFN’s regional chief for the province and served as a negotiator for the AFN on the landmark $23-billion child and family services class-action settlement.

How does the election work?

The AFN election is done convention style, with each First Nation’s chief eligible to vote, though not every community registers.

Under the assembly charter, a candidate must secure 60 per cent of the vote to win. The high bar can spark marathon battles, side deals and strategic bloc voting.

In 2021, a two-day, five-round contest ended when Bellerose conceded. Archibald had secured 205 votes, or 50.5 per cent of the 406 delegates, in the final round. 

Some chiefs argued afterward that her failure to meet the 60 per cent threshold violated the assembly’s charter but Archibald was not the lone national leader to fall short.

After a gruelling, eight-round seesaw battle in 2009, Shawn Atleo won with 58.1 per cent support after Perry Bellegarde conceded, with more than 500 voting delegates.

As candidates drop out, their supporters often migrate to others or abstain. The one-chief, one-vote system is a frequent source of complaints, as communities with a few hundred members get as much say as those with several thousand.

The voting is set to begin on Wednesday and could continue into the next day.

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