AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald attends a commemorative ceremony, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, June 21, 2023. Hundreds of Indigenous leaders are gathering today in Halifax for the start of its annual general assembly, where they will for the first time hear from their new interim national chief, following a tumultuous ousting of their former one. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Vote to oust RoseAnne Archibald ‘not taken lightly,’ AFN interim chief tells leaders

The dramatic vote to remove RoseAnne Archibald as the first female leader of the largest First Nations advocacy organization in Canada “was not taken lightly,” its interim chief told a gathering Tuesday.

Joanna Bernard, a regional chief from New Brunswick who was recently tapped to serve in the role temporarily, addressed the Assembly of First Nations during its annual gathering in Halifax for the first time since Archibald’s dramatic removal.

Archibald, who was elected in 2021, was voted out during a recent special chiefs assembly held to address the findings of an investigation into five staff members’ complaints about her conduct.

She released a statement before the gathering saying she would attend the first day virtually but may travel to Halifax for the rest of the meeting, which runs through Thursday.

Bernard told chiefs in her speech Tuesday that Archibald’s removal puts the organization in a period of transition, but said it has overcome many challenges before.

“We know the decision was not taken lightly and was a result of careful consideration by the leadership and representatives of our nations.”

She said that as interim chief, she is committed to maintaining stability.

As chiefs prepare to elect a new permanent leader, she said 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.

The human resources review concluded that some of Archibald’s behaviour amounted to harassment, and found she breached the organization’s policy by retaliating against complainants and failing to maintain confidentiality.

Speaking Tuesday, Bernard told chiefs that work was underway to address the shortcomings within the organization and “rebuilding staff morale.”

She pointed to efforts around bolstering its whistleblower policies, code of conduct and the process for reporting harassment.

Taken together, 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 targeted for fighting corruption and demanding a financial audit. She has called on chiefs and supporters to urge that the organization to reinstate her.

“Normally, the transition of power between national chiefs is a peaceful one,” she said in her statement, shared on Twitter, before the Halifax gathering.

“However, the manner in which Joanna Bernard was appointed by her fellow regional chiefs to the interim position is marred by conflict of interest and a laterally violent political coup against me as the first duly-elected female national chief.”

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.

Before the gathering got underway, the organization announced it was sharing the past decade’s worth of financial statements, which it said “confirm the absence of any financial concerns.”

Chiefs are meeting to discuss issues including First Nations policing, self-governance legislation for Métis communities and access to safe drinking water.

The election of a new national chief in December and the appointment of a chief electoral officer are on the agenda, as well as speeches from federal ministers.

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