HALIFAX — The embattled former leader of the largest First Nations advocacy organization in Canada delivered a searing rebuke of its leadership, as chiefs rejected her pleas and voted in favour of a process to replace her Tuesday.
RoseAnne Archibald appeared virtually before hundreds of Indigenous leaders gathered in Halifax for the Assembly of First Nations annual general assembly, weeks after she was removed through a special vote.
Her historic election in 2021 as the first woman to lead the organization has been marked by tumult, including a suspension last year over human resources complaints and a reinstatement at last year’s general assembly.
Archibald’s attempt to seek redemption from chiefs for a second time fell short Tuesday.
They voted 143 to 28 in favour of a resolution to appoint a chief electoral officer who would oversee the election of her replacement. The new national chief would serve until July 2027.
Archibald, who served as Ontario regional chief before taking the helm, has said she was targeted because of her efforts to fight corruption.
Appearing by video, Archibald lambasted her treatment within the organization as disrespectful and an example of “lateral violence.”
“What is being triggered in your heart? It’s hatred,” she told the chiefs. “It’s resentment. It’s based on lies, it’s based on gossip, it’s based on innuendo.”
Archibald accused the organization of having “gone off the rails” and blasted the independent third-party review into complaints against her as “incomplete” and full of “bias.”
The probe, which was conducted by a law firm, concluded that some of Archibald’s behaviour amounted to harassment. Investigators also found she breached the organization’s policies by retaliating against complainants and failing to maintain confidentiality.
“You haven’t read the report,” Archibald told the chiefs.
After several minutes of speaking, a co-chair of the meeting announced that based on its rules, it would no longer be admitting Archibald into its annual assembly.
That announcement was met with applause in the room.
In a statement released before the gathering in Halifax, Archibald told supporters she would attend virtually on Tuesday but might attend in person later in the week. The event runs until Thursday.
Earlier in the day, Archibald had unsuccessfully urged chiefs to reject the agenda set out for the meeting, and at least three chiefs tried to bring her reinstatement up for debate. Those resolutions failed.
Joanna Bernard, a regional chief from New Brunswick who was tapped to serve in the role temporarily, addressed the assembly for the first time since Archibald’s ouster and committed to rebuild confidence in its governance.
“We know the decision was not taken lightly and was a result of careful consideration by the leadership and representatives of our nations,” Bernard said.
Not all chiefs were present for the vote to remove Archibald. It happened June 28 at a special chiefs’ assembly held to address the findings of an investigation into five staff members’ complaints. Of the 231 chiefs who took part, 71 per cent voted to remove her.
Terry Teegee, regional chief for British Columbia, told reporters on Tuesday that even if not all were present, chiefs made the decision — not members of the assembly’s executive committee, whom Archibald has accused of orchestrating her removal.
“We followed the rules, wherever it fell in terms of the vote, and that was decided by the chiefs.”
The fact Archibald was the first woman to hold the role as national chief has sent a chill over other female First Nations leaders, said Joyce Naytowhow McLeod, chief of Montreal Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan. She called the decision to remove Archibald “a disgrace,” adding it makes her feel “powerless.”
“The message is ? just stay quiet, don’t voice anything,” she said. “We deal with that enough back home, as women chiefs.”
As chiefs prepare to elect a new permanent leader later in the year, Bernard told those gathered that she hopes to see “strong women leaders” come forward, but added they should select a candidate who is committed to unity regardless of their gender.
She said work was underway to address the shortcomings within the organization and “rebuilding staff morale,” pointing to efforts around bolstering its whistleblower policies, code of conduct and the process for reporting harassment.
Bernard pledged that the organization wanted to offer a “safe and supportive environment where all individuals can speak up without fear of retaliation.”
Archibald has alleged she was pushed out for demanding a financial audit.
Bernard expressed an openness during her speech Tuesday to Archibald’s push for a financial audit, saying the organization’s financial statements are audited annually, and rejected the former chief’s claims around problematic spending.
If a committee tasked with examining the issue believes a forensic audit is necessary, “we will follow that guidance,” Bernard said, adding she is committed to maintaining stability despite the challenging period of transition that now lies ahead.
Before the gathering got underway, the organization announced it was sharing the past decade’s worth of independent, audited financial statements, which it said “confirm the absence of any financial concerns.”
Teegee said it’s “disappointing” that the attention paid to Archibald’s leadership has meant slow progress on key files, including safe drinking water, housing, the drug crisis and climate change.
He rejected the belief that anything has been fully derailed, but acknowledged that turmoil has slowed the assembly’s work. “Over the next few days, hopefully we can pick up the slack.”
Annie Bernard-Daisley, co-chair of the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs, said during the opening of the assembly that it’s time to move on to more pressing issues.
“We have people in our community sitting in poverty, being murdered, a Winnipeg landfill not being searched,” she said. “The longer we delay, the less we will do for our own people. Let’s check our ego at the door and do our job.”
Garrison Settee, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, said it’s time to focus on the “dire situation” in First Nations communities.
“The chiefs are moving on.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 11, 2023.
— With files from Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa.