AFN resolution calling for probe into gender-based discrimination sparks heated debate

A resolution calling for an independent investigation into discrimination against women and people of different sexual orientations within the Assembly of First Nations was passed on Wednesday following heated debate.

That debate came to a head when Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald accused National Chief Perry Bellegarde of working behind the scenes to challenge the resolution — something he denied.

The resolution was brought to the AFN’s annual general assembly, being held virtually this week, by Doris Bill, chief of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation in Yukon and Khelsilem, an elected councillor for the Squamish Nation in B.C.

The resolution calls “to end sexual orientation and gender-based discrimination and all other forms of violence, including sexualized violence, lateral-violence and bullying in the organization.”

“I’m all too aware unfortunately of this discrimination,” said Kukpi7 Judy Wilson, elected chief of the Neskonlith in B.C.

She applauded Khelsilem and Bill for bringing the resolution forward, and “for bravely addressing the years of internal gender-based discrimination that have plagued the Assembly of First Nations and have unfortunately been replicated atrociously.”

While many spoke in support of the resolution, others were critical and asked for amendments.

More than one person asked for the word “investigation” to be removed and for the resolution to instead be focused on reviewing existing policies and procedures.

At one point, AFN legal counsel was brought into the conversation when a proxy challenged the validity of the resolution within the context of the assembly’s charter. AFN legal counsel said while the resolution is not in any violation of the assembly’s charter it could open up the assembly to potential civil liability.

The mechanisms for the independent investigation proposed in the resolution are similar to B.C.’s investigation into Indigenous-specific racism in health care. It calls for three independent investigators to take on the review and a final report would be expected within nine months, including investigative findings and recommendations for change.

Kwanlin Dün First Nation chief Doris Bill.(Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

“Now is the time to do the important work of identifying the issues so solutions can be provided to us,” said Bill.

“We must lead with dignity. You can’t on the one hand say we honour and protect our women and children and on the other, demonstrate the exact opposite.”

‘We have problems within the AFN’

As calls for amendments continued, Archibald came to the microphone.

“I feel like there are forces, very dark forces, moving against this resolution,” she said.

She accused Bellegarde of working behind the scenes to challenge the resolution as proposed.

“I want to call out the National Chief on this,” she said.

“I want the National Chief to be speaking to this right away because I believe that it’s the National Chief’s office that is the biggest resistance to this process. We have problems within the Assembly of First Nations. We have problems. And I want to start to tell you about them. That women are not always respected, especially on the executive.”

She said there are many women who’ve been negatively affected by the AFN and said that includes regional chiefs.

“This resolution actually has to go ahead as it is.”

Bellegarde replied he doesn’t have control over how other people respond to the resolution. He pointed out that he publicly supported the resolution in a CBC News article last week.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde during a news conference in Ottawa in February. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

At the same time, he said he thought there were “some issues” with implementation and asked for some “friendly amendments.”

Khelsilem and Bill agreed to a couple of minor amendments, nothing that substantially changed the original draft.

“You know our intention here is to make the AFN a better place for everyone including women and young people and two-spirit people,” said Bill.

“It needs to be a safe place for all and as you heard, it’s not. And that’s an issue.”

The resolution passed with 78 per cent of chiefs and proxies voting in support. Seventeen per cent voted against and just over five per cent abstained.

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