The Assembly of First Nations’ annual winter gathering concluded Thursday evening with progress on a few key issues, one emotional show of unity, backlogged resolutions and outstanding questions about the national advocacy organization’s internal political and legal struggles.
Delegates passed resolutions to advance gender equality within the AFN, demand compensation for child welfare survivors, seek justice for victims of residential schools and oppose a federal gun-control bill along with provincial legislation in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
The AFN’s own chiefs criticized it on Tuesday after the previous gathering in July saw internal political bickering overshadow the pressing suite of social issues facing First Nations, which National Chief RoseAnne Archibald acknowledged as she closed the gathering.
“I began by asking this room on Tuesday to do a collective inhale and exhale because there was a lot of nervous energy in the room,” she said.
“We made it through this meeting. We got great work done this week.”
Despite that progress, an ongoing human resources probe into workplace misconduct allegations against Archibald still looms over her embattled tenure as national chief.
Archibald has not been available for an interview with investigators despite repeated requests to sit down with her between August and now, said Raquel Chisholm, a partner with law firm Emond Harnden, on Wednesday.
Chisholm told the delegates that when investigators did meet with Archibald, the national chief expressed concerns about the fairness of the process.
Archibald declined interview requests Thursday and only delivered prepared remarks. She maintains the allegations against her are reprisal for her press for financial transparency.
The chiefs also heard on Wednesday that a financial probe, which they voted to commission in July after Archibald accused her own organization of corruption, is in its early stages.
Division gave way to unity
The chiefs put their differences aside Wednesday night following a marathon session where they voted to combine competing resolutions and present Canada with a unified front on compensation for survivors of the child-welfare system.
The chiefs urged Canada to pay a “minimum” of $20 billion to people covered by both a proposed class-action settlement agreement and the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s standing compensation order from 2019.
“We will be able to leave this assembly with a very clear vision that we are united: that that government is not going to divide us, that we are united together,” said Squamish Nation Council chairperson Khelsilem as he presented the new resolution, which was produced with the help of retired senator Murray Sinclair.
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, said the chiefs’ decision should send a message to Canada that trying to pit factions of First Nations leaders against each other won’t work.
“That kind of blackmail approach cannot be what reform for children looks like,” she said in an interview Thursday.
“The Canadian public, the residential school survivors, these children and these families and leaders are saying, ‘This is the last generation you get to hurt, Canada. We’re done.'”
Federal politicians address assembly
The highlights Thursday included testimony from several cabinet ministers, the prime minister and the respective heads of the federal Conservatives and New Democrats.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told CBC News he wouldn’t be surprised if Ottawa is trying to divide the chiefs after he made his party’s pitch to the delegates.
“I don’t know specifically about this particular example, how it’s happening, but it has happened. Chiefs have experienced that. Indigenous communities have experienced that for a long time,” Singh said.
“That has been how the federal government has dealt with Indigenous communities. Divide and conquer.”
In a prepared video address following Singh’s in-person speech, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre pitched his “economic reconciliation” agenda.
After that, the delegates heard from nearly half a dozen Liberal cabinet ministers who discussed a wide-ranging slate of issues that form their party’s reconciliation agenda.
Justice Minister David Lametti refused to answer questions about whether Ottawa will drop its court challenges in the child-welfare case following the show of unity from the chiefs.
Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said Ottawa prefers to negotiate rather than litigate, but also wouldn’t commit to dropping the court challenges.
Hajdu told CBC News she could understand why some chiefs may feel Canada is trying to pit them against each other on the child-welfare file, but said that isn’t the case.
Indigenous Services is committed to seeing the compensation flow as soon as possible, Hajdu said, but she wouldn’t say whether her government is willing to put more table when asked by CBC News.
Dozens of resolutions, meanwhile, remained unaddressed as the assembly concluded.
They will be pushed to July despite calls for the AFN to address them sooner.