OTTAWA — The next leader of the Assembly of First Nations will be tasked with unifying hundreds of chiefs at a time when reconciliation appears to be less of a priority in Canada, said an Indigenous policy expert.
Hayden King, executive director of Indigenous-led think tank Yellowhead Institute, said the assembly has grown in influence since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government came to power, but its internal politics have been an issue in recent years.
And taking over the leadership will be one of the "toughest jobs in politics," King said, as the assembly may have to contend with a change in leadership in the next federal election that could result in a decrease in the resources allocated to First Nations. The assembly is also grappling with how to move forward after making headlines for its previous leadership challenges.
"The AFN isn't talking about policy or law anymore. They're talking about harassment and workplace grievances. What's at stake in the next election is whether the organization can regain its influence in discussions (with the federal government)," King said.
Chiefs are expected to choose a new national chief in December, after RoseAnne Archibald was removed from the job amid allegations that she created a toxic work environment.
Archibald was ousted in June at a special chiefs' assembly held to address the findings of an investigation into complaints from five staff members about her conduct.
The third-party independent review concluded some of Archibald's behaviour amounted to harassment. It also found she breached internal policies by retaliating against complainants and failing to maintain confidentiality about the matter.
Archibald continues to deny those allegations, and her supporters maintain she was removed from the post for trying to change the organization's status quo.
Of the 231 chiefs who took part in the special assembly, 71 per cent voted to remove her.
David Pratt, vice-chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan, is the only person to officially announce their candidacy for the top job so far, though more high-profile First Nations leaders are expected to do the same in coming weeks.
When Pratt announced his leadership bid in August, he said the AFN is at a critical juncture and the election is about restoring and rebuilding the organization.
The Assembly of First Nations is a political organization that advocates on behalf of First Nations in terms of policy, education and the co-development of legislation with provincial and federal governments.
It meets twice per year to pass resolutions that determine the organization's priorities.
Some First Nations opt to negotiate directly with the federal government instead of working with the AFN.
Still, the assembly is a large fixture in First Nations politics as "there (are) really no other avenues for First Nations politicians and leadership to gather and discuss the issues that affect their communities collectively," King said.
But he said this election is coming at an unfortunate time — what he called "the end of the era of reconciliation."
What's at stake is the power the Assembly of First Nations holds, King said, and the next permanent leader will need to restore some of the organization's credibility and engage with the federal government in a way that reprioritizes First Nations interests.
The election also coincides with polling that shows the Liberals are lagging behind the Conservatives. That has led to speculation about what the relationship between the AFN and a potential Conservative government would look like.
If the Conservatives take power, King said Indigenous leaders should expect to see fewer resources allocated to their communities, fewer opportunities to co-develop legislation and more of a focus on economic development and integration.
He said the assembly has about a two-year gap until 2025, when the next election must be held, to more aggressively advocate for the interests of its membership with the current government.
More immediately, however, surprising changes to the Crown-Indigenous relations ministry this summer will affect the workings of the AFN, King said.
Minister Gary Anandasangaree is new to the gig and has to rebuild the relationships that his predecessor, Marc Miller, developed over his tenure.
"We go through peaks and valleys of reconciliation in this country. And I think we're sliding down the hill."
The assembly appears to be sliding down a hill of its own, with the head of an Indigenous consulting firm saying fewer chiefs are attending assemblies, which may signal that grassroots chiefs feel the organization doesn't represent their interests.
"There has been a lot of quiet whispering among government officials about how difficult it's been to work with the AFN for the last period of time because there's been a lack of vision — a lack of co-ordination — that has left the government's legislative agenda difficult to advance," said Max FineDay, the CEO of Warshield.
Records obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act show how those quiet whispers can turn into ink-filled pages shared with the departments responsible for engaging with the organization.
In internal documents, the government blamed the assembly for delays in passing First Nations policing legislation, with officials expressing concern that things were not moving quickly enough for the government to meet its promise to table a bill before Parliament’s summer recess.
“There is a significant risk that (the public safety minister) will not be able to table a First Nations police services bill by June 2023 due to ongoing challenges with the AFN, which limits timely progress,” one briefing note said.
The bill was not presented in Parliament during the spring sitting.
Other high-stakes issues like criminal justice reform, Indigenous health-care legislation and the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are set to be discussed with the federal government in the coming months.
That may present a challenge for the incoming national chief, who will have to be quickly briefed on the legislative agenda and how to communicate with both membership and the media about how those pieces of legislation are advancing, FineDay said.
In the lead-up to the election, FineDay said he's been hearing a lot of leadership hopefuls talk about healing and moving forward together, and he expects those ideals to be fixtures in their campaigns as they work to rebuild the image of the AFN.
Whoever is elected in December will have to spend a lot of time rebuilding grassroots trust with the national organization, and bring a sense of belonging back to the assembly.
"There's certainly a lot at stake here for First Nations," said FineDay.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 12, 2023.
— With files from Marlo Glass
Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press