The Assembly of First Nations’ annual general assembly gets underway Tuesday under a cloud of uncertainty and division among top leadership that threatens to overshadow the gathering.
The event, being held at the Vancouver Convention Centre through Thursday, will see hundreds of chiefs, elders, youth and representatives consider resolutions and reports that will set the organization’s goals for the year on reconciliation, housing, child care and the ongoing healing from the legacy of residential schools.
But the suspension of National Chief Roseanne Archibald, who has brought allegations of corruption and intimidation against the AFN’s executive council, is likely to dominate the three-day-long assembly.
Archibald, the first woman to be elected as national chief, was suspended by the AFN in June a day after she publicly called for an internal investigation and financial audit. She also claimed allegations of bullying and harassment against her were being used to silence her attempts at reforming the organization.
The AFN has since reversed an earlier statement that said Archibald was barred from attending this week’s meetings, saying she’ll be allowed to speak to a resolution that will ratify her suspension.
Yet a new draft of the agenda for the general assembly removed several scheduled appearances by Archibald, including her opening address on Tuesday.
On Twitter, Archibald accused the AFN regional chiefs of “continu(ing) to try & silence me (and) my call for transparency, accountability and truth” by removing her from the agenda.
An Ontario Superior Court judge dismissed Archibald’s urgent request for the court to deem her suspension unlawful, siding with the AFN that argued Indigenous people can manage their own affairs.
But one expert says the drama surrounding Archibald and the AFN leadership threatens to undermine that constitutional right to self-governance.
“A lot of people in this country … aren’t really comfortable with the idea of Indigenous people being full partners in Confederation and they’ll take an example like this and say, ‘See, I told you,'” said Ken Coates, a public policy professor at the University of Saskatchewan who studies Indigenous rights.
He added if Archibald’s suspension is ratified at the general assembly, it “will cause even more dissension and difficulty, so we’ll be watching (the meetings) more closely than we have in recent years.”
The issue has become a sore point for chiefs and elders attending the meeting, many of whom still recognize Archibald as their national chief despite AFN’s suspension.
“She was voted in,” said Sts’ailes Tribe Chief Ralph Leon (Sah-ahkw), who adds Archibald has a duty to attend the general assembly.
“Nobody has that right to ban our national chief from her meeting,” he said. “This is where she gets her direction, from all the chiefs, so she can’t do her job without being here.”
A “show of solidarity” for Archibald is being independently organized for Tuesday morning before the day’s events get underway.
The general assembly is expected to still include remarks from several other First Nations leaders and regional chiefs from across the country, who will be presenting the resolutions to be voted upon.
The resolutions range from calling for an AFN chiefs’ committee on residential schools and reimbursements of legal fees for survivors, to addressing the impacts of climate-related disasters on Indigenous communities and supporting their recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The AFN will also be marking a historic $20-billion final settlement agreement with the federal government to compensate First Nations children and families harmed by chronic underfunding of child welfare on reserve.
The deal, announced Monday, was hailed by Indigenous Services Canada as the largest in Canadian history.
— with files from Global’s Neetu Garcha and the Canadian Press