Consideration of women candidates not enough to delay AFN election for national chief

·5 min read

Chiefs-in-Assembly may have approved a resolution supporting gender equity for the Assembly of First Nations last December, but a recent AFN executive decision did little to illustrate that support.

On May 11, the executive voted against postponing the upcoming virtual election for national chief despite concerns outlined in a letter from Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who wrote that continuing with the scheduled election in early July would put women contenders at a disadvantage.

“There are systemic barriers for women candidates that are well known and documented…. A virtual election risks deepening these barriers. It neglects to consider the disproportionate and well-documented impact of the pandemic on women generally, and additional burdens that women have had to carry over the past year…. For First Nations women seeking to break new ground, and push through long-standing barriers that have limited our participation, there are greater obstacles,” wrote Turpel-Lafond, legal counsel with Woodward & Company Lawyers.

Kwanlin Dün First Nation Chief Doris Bill knows first-hand the pressure women in the Yukon Territory experienced—and continue to experience—throughout the coronavirus pandemic, which was declared in Canada in March 2020.

“I heard from women who were texting me from across the territory who were scared to death for their families and for the communities and they were doing what they could to keep our communities safe. When people reached out to me, you could feel the fear. You could feel the anxiety they were undergoing. It was hard. As a leader it was very hard to carry that. I know women were affected twice as much as men because … many of the women were the caregivers of the family,” said Bill.

At last December’s virtual AFN annual general assembly, Chief Bill seconded the resolution entitled “Becoming a role model in ending sexual orientation and gender-based discrimination within the Assembly of First Nations.” It was carried with 12 objections and four abstentions.

Bill believes that the AFN executive could have shown leadership for gender equity by postponing the election.

“It’s a difficult decision to move an election…. It’s not something we take lightly at all as leaders. But, you also have to consider the larger picture. You have to consider the feelings and the concerns of the people that you serve and a good majority of those people are women,” said Bill.

“The AFN is a male-dominated organization and it has always been very difficult for women to carve a space out in that kind of environment,” she added.

Yukon Regional Chief Kluane Adamek knows about that.

“Has it been easy at the table? No. Have I been discriminated against because of my gender and my age (34)? Yes. Is it time for a woman? Absolutely. The assembly has to get itself ready. I think the AFN has to change and I think that it’s time for us to really hold up the mirror and think and reflect on how we do treat women in elected leadership positions,” said Adamek.

Adamek is one of three women regional chiefs. However, at the AFN executive meeting last week, she was the only woman regional chief in attendance. Both Alberta Regional Chief Marlene Poitras and Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald sent proxies in their place. On May 18, Archibald announced she would not be seeking a second term as Ontario regional chief.

Adamek voted in favour of postponing the election for national chief until December. Her decision was informed by the barriers women-candidates face, as outlined by Turpel-Lafond, but also because of connectivity, security and transparency issues and the inability of candidates to meet in person with community members.

“I do feel, however, not only from a process perspective, but from an equity perspective, that this election is going to be incredibly challenging because of those issues,” said Adamek.

The resolution to postpone the election was presented by British Columbia Regional Chief Terry Teegee, who raised “red flags” about connectivity and authentication of voters. This was based on the experience of his own region, which hosted a virtual election last November.

As for women candidates, Teegee says he understands the issues raised by Turpel-Lafond.

“She does bring valid points in terms of fairness for all candidates. And then she was identifying the gender inequity, especially in these types of elections and this type of organization. I suppose, there is discrepancy, in terms of participation and ability to have your voice heard,” said Teegee.

However, Teegee says the AFN executive’s decision to continue with the election was not made to slight potential women candidates but was made to keep with a resolution passed earlier by chiefs for a July election.

The Yukon and BC were joined by Quebec in support of postponing the election. However, the motion was defeated and the election for national chief will be going forward as scheduled on July 7 at the AFN annual general assembly.

There is a chance, says Teegee, that on the first day of the AGA a resolution could be put on the floor to delay the election.

“Whether it passes or not is tough to know, but I think it’s more and more looking like the chiefs want to have an election,” he said.

“I’ve heard some incredible women … that definitely could be considering (running). I think it would be so incredible to have the right woman step forward, and I really look forward to seeing by the June deadline, with the election proceeding as determined, to see who will be stepping forward. I do think it’s time for the right woman to lead our organization,” said Adamek.

“I’m hoping if a woman candidate steps forward, we can support her. I just really feel it’s time to change, and it’s time we started taking these things seriously and it’s time we start dealing with them,” said Bill.

Women have run in the past for the position of national chief. None have been successful.

June 2 is the deadline for nominations.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler has declared his intent to run to replace National Chief Perry Bellegarde, who is stepping down after two-terms. Fiddler supports the election being held in July.

By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter,,

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