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Candidates vying for top job at Assembly of First Nations make final plea to assembly

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OTTAWA -

Hundreds of delegates listened intently Tuesday as the slate of candidates vying to take over leadership of the Assembly of First Nations pleaded their case one final time before the assembly decides their fate.

After elaborate opening ceremonies, a policy debate and a panel on the Federal Court's landmark $23-billion child-welfare settlement, the assembly gave way to an evening of vote-for-me pitches before ballots are cast Wednesday.

Each candidate was given 20 minutes to make a final presentation to assembled delegates before a question-and-answer session that was scheduled to last an hour and a half.

"It's the chiefs that we listen to," said Craig Makinaw, the former chief of Ermineskin Cree Nation, a former AFN Alberta regional chief and founding member of Natural Law Energy, who kicked off the session.

Makinaw acknowledged internal issues with the national chief's office and the executive, but said his previous experience as a regional chief could help him work with everyone and help the organization function more effectively.

He talked about issues with membership under the Indian Act, which dictates who is eligible for First Nations status in Canada, as well as his plans to address the infrastructure gap and issues in the justice system.

"Our population is getting bigger, and our land-base is getting smaller," Makinaw said of on-reserve housing crises that result in decades-long wait lists and homes in need of major repairs.

"We need more land -- everyone needs more land."

Dean Sayers, a longtime Batchewana First Nation chief, said Anishinaabe have inherent obligations dating back to when they were "lowered" into what is now known as North America.

"We are the first level of governance on these lands," which includes the protection of land, languages, peoples and ways of life, Sayers said. The Assembly of First Nations is a vehicle to do that work, and chiefs must be united, he added.

"I'm not going to sit in Ottawa -- I'm not going to be here waiting for a meeting with the prime minister," he said. Instead, he promised to be on the ground in communities listening to the chiefs themselves.

"We need to take action based on what we see."

Cindy Woodhouse, the assembly's current regional chief for Manitoba, earned a rousing cheer when he acknowledged Wab Kinew's election win in her province, becoming Canada's first-ever First Nations premier.

Woodhouse recalled her experience working on the child-welfare settlement that the Federal Court finally approved in October after years of often painstaking negotiations and setbacks.

She described how at one point, when negotiations appeared to be bogging down, she took matters into her own hands: "'You know what? I'm calling the Prime Minister's Office."'

They secured the deal that night, she said. "It's a historic amount, but it's a historic issue."

Woodhouse also called for better First Nations policing, more communication between chiefs and the executive, and the need to lobby Ottawa more aggressively to ensure their concerns are addressed in the next federal budget.

The election of the organization's next national chief comes as members look for a reset, following a turbulent period when their internal politics were as high-profile as their advocacy for some 600 First Nations.

Former national chief RoseAnne 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 denied 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.

During this week's assembly, six candidates will try and convince an even bigger group of chiefs and their proxies why they are best suited to lead the organization.

Reginald Bellerose, chair of the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority and the Saskatchewan Indian Training Assessment Group, is on the list, along with Craig Makinaw, a former chief of Ermineskin Cree Nation and ex-AFN Alberta regional chief.

Also running are Sheila North, a former grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, and David Pratt, vice-chief for the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations.

Candidate Dean Sayers speaks during the All Candidates Forum on first day of the annual Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly (SCA) in Ottawa, on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

Rounding out the list are Dean Sayers, a longtime Batchewana First Nation chief, and Cindy Woodhouse, the assembly's current regional chief for Manitoba.

According to the assembly's election procedures, each member nation has one vote, which can be cast either by the chief or by a registered proxy.

The winner of the election is the candidate that receives more than 60 per cent of the votes.

If no candidate receives more than 60 per cent of the vote, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and additional rounds of voting ensue.

Immediately after the election on Wednesday evening, the new national chief is expected to participate in an oath of office ceremony.

While chiefs are gathering to elect their new leader, they're also using the special assembly as a means to advance their other interests.

A hefty package of resolutions up for discussion includes concerns around child welfare, health care and homelessness.

Chief Lance Haymond of Kebaowek First Nation sought support on Tuesday to approve and implement a national First Nations homelessness action plan.

His resolution calls for the assembly to advocate for "long term, sustained, needs-based funding options for First Nations," so that they can deliver their own programs and services no matter the particular constraints they may be facing.

That resolution passed on Tuesday afternoon.

The 42 draft resolutions also include one, from Chief Allan Polchies of St. Mary's First Nation, that would reaffirm the traditional roles of two-spirit and gender-diverse peoples within First Nations.

It calls on the AFN to reject government policies that would affect people with those identities, and seeks adequate funding and resources for an advisory council focused on the issue.

Chiefs are expected to resume their debate of the draft resolutions on Thursday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 5, 2023.

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