Embattled national chief, ‘an activist’ at heart, vows to keep fighting

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald at the special chiefs assembly in Ottawa Dec. 8. (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)

RoseAnne Archibald optimistic about remainder of term despite internal controversy

By Brett Forester, CBC News

Politics watchers sometimes call the national chief’s job thankless, but if that’s how RoseAnne Archibald feels after a tumultuous year and half atop the Assembly of First Nations, she isn’t ready to admit it.

She survived a non-confidence motion, convinced chiefs to review AFN finances, and now faces an ongoing workplace misconduct probe. Despite that, the Ontario Cree leader says she’s optimistic about the second half of her historic term as the AFN’s first woman national chief as the calendar year comes to a close.

“I always keep the people in my heart and in my mind,” she said this week in a wide-ranging interview from Vancouver.

“Ultimately, I think that’s what’s in everybody’s hearts and minds is our people: the people in the communities, the citizens that we are trying to uplift.”

Archibald says she wants to spend 2023 fighting for those people, beginning with families of missing and murdered Indigenous women after authorities in Winnipeg charged an alleged serial killer with murder in the deaths of four Indigenous women earlier this month.

She says priority number two is securing compensation for survivors of Canada’s chronically underfunded on-reserve child-welfare system.

After that, she pledges to oppose a controversial federal gun-control bill and back First Nations in Alberta, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick as they prepare for political showdowns with their provincial governments.

Somewhere in between, Archibald must decide when — and if — she’ll sit down with third-party investigators probing five sets of misconduct allegations AFN staff and former staff have filed against her.

Resistance to investigation

Chiefs gathered in Ottawa for the AFN’s winter assembly last week heard Archibald hadn’t made herself available for an interview with investigators despite their repeated requests to sit down with her between August and now.

Delegates saw a video in which Raquel Chisholm, a partner with law firm Emond Harnden, said Archibald expressed concerns about the fairness of the process.

Archibald says her legal team requested but failed to obtain a copy of the video beforehand, and so she watched it for the first time along with all the other assembly delegates. She won’t explain her concerns in detail.

“Will there be a response? Yes. That’s to my legal counsel to help me wade through,” Archibald said.

“I can’t, obviously, comment on any details.”

Archibald’s supporters, like Pikwakanagan Chief Wendy Jocko, say Archibald’s been busy visiting communities, and that Archibald’s brother died during the period investigators sought to interview her.

“We need to take these factors into account, especially when meetings are requested,” said Jocko in an interview last week.

“There needs to be a little bit of compassion towards a person when they’re in a state of mourning.”

But Archibald’s critics, like Gull Bay Chief Wilfred King, who is suing her and the AFN for defamation, suggest she is demonstrating a double standard: demanding accountability on the AFN’s finances while ducking it herself.

“We heard our lawyers talk about how the national chief wasn’t participating in the HR investigation, even though she agreed to that at the AFN assembly in Vancouver,” King told the chiefs at the assembly.

“Where is the accountability and transparency?”

Archibald brushes the criticism off.

“I’m not clear on what was meant by those comments and neither were the chairs, which is why they moved on to continue talking about the resolutions at hand.”

‘An activist in my heart’

That resolution aimed to make AFN contracting policies more transparent, which the chiefs carried.

“What are these contracts that are coming out of the AFN? Who is getting them, and why? These are questions that chiefs want answered,” Archibald said.

It’s one of a handful of resolutions passed last week that Archibald says demonstrate work is getting done despite the difficult circumstances.

But dozens of resolutions were left on the floor, sparking frustration from delegates who wanted to see more accomplished. Archibald says the struggles advancing resolutions, like tensions between the regional and national chiefs, are baked into its structure and governance.

“It’s an ongoing problem at the AFN. My team and I are now looking at ways to correct that. It’s just accumulated over years and years where resolutions are often left on the floor,” she said.

Meanwhile, the AFN has long faced questions from grassroots First Nations people about its independence, effectiveness and relevance.

The AFN says it lobbies on behalf of nearly a million First Nations people spread across 634 communities, but only chiefs vote for the national leader, and only chiefs set that leader’s mandate.

Archibald entered politics in spring 1989 as an uncompromising 22-year-old activist hunger-striking against the Mulroney government’s plan to cap spending on First Nations post-secondary education.

She wants to be seen as true to those roots.

“I still feel like I’m an activist in my heart,” said Archibald, adding she feels more comfortable visiting communities and helping them tackle pressing issues.

“I want to be on the ground when I’m needed on the ground. I hope to have more opportunities to do that in the second half of my term.”

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