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Assembly of First Nations to elect new national chief in Ottawa this week

OTTAWA — The Assembly of First Nations is set to elect a new national chief this week in Ottawa during a three-day special assembly.
The Assembly of First Nations is set to elect its new national chief this week in Ottawa. The Eastern Eagles Mi'kmaq drumming group performs at the beginning of the AFN annual general assembly, in Halifax, Tuesday, July 11, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

OTTAWA — The Assembly of First Nations is set to elect a new national chief this week in Ottawa during a three-day special assembly. 

The organization represents more than 600 First Nations chiefs in Canada, and they or their proxies are slated to elect the next national chief in a special assembly vote expected to take place on Wednesday. 

Chiefs are also expected to vote on resolutions for a national First Nations homelessness action plan, languages funding and health care, among other priorities.

The contest comes after the dramatic ouster of former national chief RoseAnne Archibald, who was voted out after colleagues accused her of creating a toxic work environment — an allegation she has denied.

Six candidates are in the running to secure the top job, including Reginald Bellerose, Craig Makinaw, Sheila North, David Pratt, Dean Sayers and Cindy Woodhouse.

Bellerose, who is the chair of the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority and the Saskatchewan Indian Training Assessment Group, is vying for the top job after an unsuccessful attempt in the last election. 

His platform focuses on building generational wealth in communities, rebuilding nation-to-nation relationships and community wellness, especially in northern and remote First Nations.

"When it comes to housing, mental health, training and access to primary health care, that's all different from the southern perspective," he said at an all-candidates forum in Manitoba last week.

Makinaw is the former chief of Ermineskin Cree Nation and former AFN Alberta regional chief. He's also a founding member of Natural Law Energy, a coalition that advocates for Indigenous communities to participate in the resource economy.

During the all-candidates forum, Makinaw said communities need to be proactive about protecting membership rights when pressed on how he would address concerns around the Indian Act, which governs who the federal government deems to be First Nations under the law.

"We hear from some of our elders that once the last status Indian (has) passed away, (so do) our treaty rights," he said.

North, a former grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak and an advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women, has said she'd prioritize respecting the inherent rights of First Nations if elected as national chief. 

She has also said the AFN needs to do a better job acting in the best interest of those it's meant to represent: the chiefs.

Pratt currently serves as the vice-chief for the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations. 

In announcing his candidacy, Pratt said the assembly is at a "critical juncture" and the election is about restoring and rebuilding the national organization after years of internal turmoil.

Sayers, a longtime Batchewana First Nation chief, was most recently involved in negotiations for the Robinson Huron Treaty settlement, in which signatory First Nations argued that Canada and Ontario did not uphold their treaty obligations to make annual payments to Indigenous beneficiaries. They had first been promised in 1850, and were capped at $4 per person in 1875. 

If elected, Sayers has said he would empower First Nations communities across the country to enhance internal governance structures, and to compel outside governments to honour promises made to communities.

Woodhouse, the assembly's regional chief for Manitoba, recently led the assembly toward a landmark $23-billion child-welfare settlement approved by the Federal Court in October.

She said she would continue fighting for the rights and well-being of First Nations children if elected, and help to advance economic reconciliation.

The election will mark an end to the temporary leadership of Joanna Bernard, who was elected as interim national chief in the wake of Archibald's ouster.

According to the assembly's election procedures, each member nation has one vote that can be used by its representative — either the chief or a registered proxy.

If no candidate receives more than 60 per cent of the vote, additional rounds of voting will occur. In each round, the candidate with the lowest number of votes will be eliminated from the running. 

Immediately after the election, the new national chief is expected to participate in an oath-of-office ceremony.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 4, 2023.

— With files from Brittany Hobson in Winnipeg.

Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press