RoseAnne Archibald ousted as Assembly of First Nations national chief

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Assembly of First Nations chiefs have voted to oust RoseAnne Archibald as national chief, adopting a non-confidence motion to remove the embattled leader Wednesday at a historic, one-day meeting held virtually via Zoom.

The motion needed 60 per cent support from First Nations leaders in attendance to pass. It eventually secured 71 per cent, or 163 of the 231 votes cast. 

The chiefs and proxies in attendance were faced with competing resolutions — one calling for Archibald’s removal, the other endorsing her to continue until 2024 — but scrapped the second after the first succeeded.

Chiefs Irene Kells and Kyra Wilson, of Ontario and Manitoba respectively, advanced the motion to topple Archibald. The chiefs who backed removal were heavily critical of Archibald’s leadership but met resistance from others who saw the potential impeachment of the first woman national chief as too extreme.

But the overarching mood was one of disappointment, sadness and concern for the AFN’s future, with several chiefs calling it upsetting that the issue has drawn on so long — a sentiment that evidently prevailed.

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The Assembly of First Nation is ousting National Chief RoseAnne Archibald after a workplace investigation earlier this year probed her alleged mistreatment of several staffers. More than 70 per cent of AFN members voted to push her out.

“We are starting to be mocked,” said Chief Dylan Whiteduck of Kitigan Zibi in Quebec in a speech to delegates.

“A house divided won’t stand,” said Chief Don Maracle of Tyendinaga in Ontario, warning the AFN is “going to crumble” if the squabbling continues.

An election for a new national chief will take place at December’s annual special chiefs assembly, according to the AFN. 

The AFN is the largest Indigenous advocacy organization in Canada, representing more than 600 First Nations communities across the country.

Uncharted territory

The vote caps more than a year of internal leadership controversy at the federally funded advocacy organization and sends it into uncharted territory.

The troubles escalated in June 2022 when four of Archibald’s senior staffers filed misconduct complaints against her. The AFN’s then-CEO filed a fifth. The AFN’s regional chiefs then launched an external investigation into Archibald’s conduct and suspended her. 

The regional chiefs, who make up AFN’s executive committee alongside the national chief, also recommended her removal at the July 2022 Vancouver assembly, where Archibald responded by calling the probe a smear campaign designed to distract from her push for a forensic audit.

The chiefs eventually passed a resolution there — rejecting the suspension, ordering the financial review and directing the two sides to come together, to co-operate on the probe and, if needed, hold a special meeting to report back.

Neither the complainants nor the public were permitted to attend Wednesday’s meeting. The AFN granted CBC News access under embargo until it concluded.

Things began with a briefing by Ottawa-based employment lawyer Raquel Chisholm, from the firm Emond Harnden, whose summary of the investigation, released last month, found Archibald harassed two complainants and retaliated against all five.

Archibald then released her own counter-report afterward, disputing the findings.

“I have not been weakened from the attacks,” Archibald told the delegates. “I have been made stronger and better.” 

With her political career hanging in the balance, Archibald gave an impassioned speech, arguing the AFN would set a dangerous precedent by firing its first female national chief over what her lawyer called “minor breaches” of human resources policies.

“Many women are watching,” she said. “What’s happening to me would never happen to a male chief. It would never happen to any of my predecessors.”

She had 30 minutes to speak, time she shared with her lawyer, David Shiller, who had been denied more speaking time earlier in the meeting. Shiller accused Chisholm of doing the work of regional chiefs, who he said are motivated by one goal — toppling Archibald. 

“Very regrettably, Ms. Chisholm is furthering this agenda,” he said. “Her summary is just a piece of advocacy on behalf of the regional chiefs.”

He alleged investigators misinterpreted the findings and argued that Archibald has been vindicated, calling the process unfair and the conclusions weak.

“They simply got it wrong,” Shiller said. 

First Nations leader sit together on stage.
The AFN’s annual general assembly began on July 5, 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Archibald said the efforts against her started in February 2021 when she began her campaign for a financial review. At that time, while she was Ontario regional chief, Archibald faced a separate bullying and harassment probe launched by the AFN.

The 2021 investigation hit a dead end because none of the complainants would come forward publicly to file formal complaints, fearing workplace retribution.

Regional leaders respond

But the regional chiefs were prepared to refute that point. Nova Scotia Regional Chief Paul (PJ) Prosper made an emotional address of his own, calling the breaches not minor, but serious.

“The vote we entertain today has nothing to do with gender,” he said. “It has everything to do with the actions, competence and performance of the national chief.”

But Prosper conceded the governance dispute has harmed the organization, claiming the low turnout sends a strong message from a silent majority of chiefs.

“They are the ones that are completely fed up with the actions of the national chief,” he said. “The national chief has created a national embarrassment.”

A politician rises with her hands in the air.
Assembly of First Nations national chief RoseAnne Archibald following the results of a vote on an emergency resolution that looked to continue her suspension on July 5. A total of 252 First Nations chiefs and proxies voted against the resolution, while only 44 voted in favour. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

New Brunswick Regional Chief Joanna Bernard accused Archibald of failing to live up to the high expectations women had for the first female national chief.

“We are embarrassed by her conduct and embarrassed that she would dare even rely on gender as a defence,” said Bernard.

Speaking in French, Quebec Regional Chief Ghislain Picard, who led the AFN on an interim basis after Shawn Atleo resigned in 2014, said he never saw such dysfunction in all his years.

At that point, raising a point of order, Jeffrey Copenace, chief of the Ojibways of Onigaming in Ontario, a vocal Archibald backer, spoke against the regional leaders.

“This is not how the Anishinaabe conduct business,” he said. “This is an embarrassment to the country.”

Despite the seriousness of the topic and the powerful criticism, the assembly was focused and businesslike, avoiding the chaos of the July 2022 affair. Several chiefs urged their leaders to put the dispute behind them once and for all.

The meeting adjourned abruptly following the non-confidence motion.

In an interview afterward, Prosper said the AFN executive will begin initiating a process to select an interim national chief, adding that the new leader must focus on healing the rift.

Archibald could not immediately be reached for comment.

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