The Assembly of First Nations has appointed a new temporary leader as the advocacy organization tries to forge a path forward after the tumultuous tenure and ousting of its national chief.
Joanna Bernard, who is the regional chief for New Brunswick, has been chosen as the interim national chief until a new one is elected in December.
“It is crucial that the Assembly of First Nations resume its important work of advancing First Nations’ priorities,” Bernard said in a news release Monday.
The decision comes ahead of this week’s annual general assembly in Halifax where hundreds of Indigenous leaders are set to gather for the first time since former national chief RoseAnne Archibald was ousted from the organization’s helm.
Archibald has said she may attend the meeting, scheduled to take place Tuesday through Thursday, and is asking for chiefs to reinstate her.
Archibald was voted out during a special chiefs assembly on June 28 that also dealt with a human resources investigation related to complaints AFN staff filed against her. The resolution passed with support from about 70 per cent of those who took part in the virtual meeting.
“I think this is another opportunity to try to reset and get some work done,” said Scott McLeod, chief of Nipissing First Nation in Ontario.
McLeod voted to oust the former national chief after learning the summary of the human resources investigation. It reviewed five complaints against Archibald and found some of her behaviour amounted to harassment. It also found Archibald failed to maintain confidentiality and breached AFN policy, including by retaliating against complainants.
However, McLeod said, the investigation was the final straw after more than a year of chaos that he says was getting in the way of any progress at the organization, which represents more than 600 First Nations across the country.
“It seemed more and more that our assemblies were always turning out to be internal squabbling rather than trying to get things done as an organization,” McLeod said.
A collective voice for Indigenous advocacy remains important, he said, but it needs new leadership and stability.
Niigaan Sinclair, a professor at the University of Manitoba, said the national chief’s removal comes during a time of turmoil for the organization.
He said the successful vote to remove Archibald, which amounted to about one-fifth of chiefs, appears questionable because it comes after the national chief asked about transparency, governance and accountability within the assembly.
He questioned why the vote wasn’t held during the annual meeting or whether it would have been a better choice to have Archibald finish out her three-year term.
“To remove her is a very bad look,” Sinclair said.
Sinclair also noted the AFN is a lobby group for chiefs, not a government, and its spokesperson is supposed to follow the will of the chiefs.
Archibald became the first woman to serve in the national chief role in 2021, but her term has been tumultuous. She was suspended as national chief last June and reinstated at a general assembly the following month.
Archibald has alleged she was targeted for fighting corruption at the AFN and for insisting on a financial audit. She has also called for an independent investigation into potential government interference.
The Office of the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations said it would be inappropriate to comment.
“The Assembly of First Nations’ workplace investigation, and the decision to remove RoseAnne Archibald as the AFN National Chief, is an internal matter within the organization,” it said in a statement.
Joe Alphonse, Tl’etinqox First Nation Chief and Tribal Chairman of the Tsilhqot’in National Government in British Columbia, said “the problem with the AFN (is) too many chiefs, not enough warriors.”
Alphonse, who voted to keep Archibald as national chief, said the release of the human resources investigation was a “gong show” and he didn’t find it credible. Voting out the chief was a demonstration of weak governance, Alphonse said.
“Personally, I think it’s really weakened the AFN,” he said, adding his focus will be on his First Nation and he will support the Indigenous organization only if it moves to a better place.
The assembly is facing fire from Archibald detractors and supporters, but many people say it does not mean the organization itself should be abandoned. Sinclair said there will always be a need for a national voice or national organization to bring chiefs together, especially when it comes to issues around the Indian Act.
The upcoming AFN assembly is to include updates on a national climate strategy, safe drinking water, Indigenous policing and governance, among other issues.
McLeod said he understands a lot of people feel the AFN is becoming irrelevant because it has been “fumbling along for the last few years.”
“We don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater here,” he said.
“There’s a role for the AFN.”