National Chief’s Suspension Overshadows AFN Annual Assembly

By Lee Harding
Lee Harding
Lee Harding
Lee Harding is a journalist and think tank researcher based in Saskatchewan, and a contributor to The Epoch Times.
July 5, 2022 Updated: July 6, 2022

Controversy overshadows the Assembly of First Nations’ annual gathering this week as it seeks the continued suspension of its national chief.

The AFN is holding its 43rd Annual General Assembly both virtually and at the Vancouver Convention Centre on July 5–7. The organization’s executive committee has drafted a resolution that asks the chiefs to ratify and continue the suspension of National Chief RoseAnne Archibald.

On June 16, Archibald called for an independent audit of the AFN spanning the last eight years. She also issued a statement saying she was being persecuted for trying to investigate corruption within the assembly.

The next day, the AFN’s executive committee alleged that Archibald’s allegations breached her oath of office as well as the AFN’s code of conduct and whistleblower policy. The committee suspended Archibald with pay pending an investigation into four complaints lodged against her by her staff.

Melissa Mbarki, a policy analyst and outreach coordinator for the Indigenous Policy Program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, says Archibald was an inspiring figure for those who voted her into the AFN’s highest office.

“When she was campaigning for AFN, she wanted transparency and accountability, and this is something that resonated across the country. People definitely were interested in what she had to say. We were like, ‘Yes, this is what we need. This is the kind of leader that we need—somebody that’s going to question things, and somebody that’s just going to stand up for everyone’s rights,’” said Mbarki, who grew up on the Muskowekwan Reserve in Saskatchewan.

The AFN’s executive initially indicated that Archibald would not be allowed to speak at the national convention, but later relented. Mbarki called the initial decision “condescending.”

“That is really insulting. Number one, it’s very hard for women to get into positions like that. And until they make a decision and say she’s no longer leader, she’s entitled to go to those meetings and she’s entitled to speak at these meetings, because her voice still matters. And her voice is going to matter even after all of this,” she said.

“If they didn’t allow her to speak, that would have caused some uproar in my community and the surrounding communities because we all support her. So they have to be very mindful of what they do in this situation, because [either] they’re going to look like it’s the old boys’ club bullying a woman, or are they going to move forward and work with her?”

In a June 17 statement, Archibald said there were “fictitious attacks” against her by AFN staff. She also said she was locked out of her email and found out about her suspension through the media. She called these events “a seemingly staged coup” and said she was targeted for refusing to sign off on staff payouts worth more than $1 million.

According to an AFN statement, Archibald tried to get a hearing before the Ontario Superior Court prior to the AFN annual general assembly and alleged the executive committee lacks the power to suspend her. The judge sided with the AFN executive, who argued the matter should be settled internally and in the assembly.

“This decision … does not support the claims that our actions were illegal or outside our authority,” Regional Chief Paul Prosper said in the statement. “We are sorry that the national chief chose the path of colonial court confrontation to resolve this.”

‘It’s Going to Cause a Lot of Backlash’

Mbarki says stripping Archibald of her authority over the AFN’s corporation will not end the questions raised by her allegations.

“That is very condescending, and they definitely need to approach this in a very respectful manner because there’s a lot of eyes on them right now. It’s really making us question if what is going on is true, and if it is, it’s going to cause a lot of backlash, especially right now,” she said.

“Reserves are so poor. We have no clean water in some of them, and there’s new reserves going onto the boil water advisory in a week’s time. We’re dealing with so much that if she’s questioning expenses of some executives or employees in that corporation, she has every right because some of that money could be going to our communities to help with these issues.”

Ken Coates, a professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan, likens the situation to the federal Liberal sponsorship scandal of roughly 20 years ago. He believes the situation will be difficult to handle.

“Indigenous politics is very personal. It’s very networked and very collaborative, very regional. And so you have lots of people going off. And this debate is going on, on a regular basis, right now. It is happening all the time across the country,” Coates said in an interview.

“If National Chief Archibald is removed, there’ll be lots of people very upset about that, particularly as she’s the first woman national chief. But it also depends on who comes in to replace her if she’s removed. And if she’s not removed, you may get some criticism of the people who took action against her, the executive committee in particular. And so, this one is not likely to end happily for everybody. That’s almost impossible.”

Mbarki says the AFN has become less relevant to some bands in the past “10 or so years,” as bands that support oil and gas development and pipelines don’t always find their views advanced by the federally funded organization based in Ottawa.

Coates agrees that some bands don’t look to AFN leadership the way they used to.

“If you have modern treaties [or] if you just received a major settlement from a major land claim or a court case, the AFN isn’t front and centre anymore,” he said.

“If you’re involved in major economic ventures, or activities, as they are say with the Squamish First Nation in British Columbia or some of the First Nations in Saskatchewan, you don’t look to the AFN to provide guidance, because you’re taking control of your own economic future and doing a whole bunch of things anyway. It is a trend. There’s a transition going on already that’s really quite dramatic.”

“I can’t imagine the AFN disappearing completely,” however, Coates adds.

“It does seem to need a national association of some sort. What is interesting is that over the last little while, there has been a very substantial amount of movement back to the regional and community level. So not all the chiefs pay as much attention to the AFN as they did 20 years ago—and that’s not a bad thing.”

The Epoch Times attempted to contact Archibald, AFN staff, and Prosper for comments but received no replies.

The Canadian Press contributed to this article.

Lee Harding
Lee Harding is a journalist and think tank researcher based in Saskatchewan, and a contributor to The Epoch Times.