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As former chief sues Assembly of First Nations, minister says Ottawa won't weigh in

Minister of Crown–Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree speaks in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Monday, June 3, 2024. Anandasangaree says the federal government's relationship with the Assembly of First Nations is primarily based on trust, not on accountability, as the former national chief launches a lawsuit against the organization.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby
Original Publication Date June 20, 2024 - 10:21 AM

OTTAWA - The federal minister of Crown-Indigenous relations says Ottawa's role is not to govern the internal accountability of the Assembly of First Nations, as its former chief launches a lawsuit against the advocacy group.

Gary Anandasangaree said in an interview Thursday that the AFN is a trusted, "valued partner" for the federal government, and he wouldn't weigh in on the legal case.

RoseAnne Archibald, who was ousted from the post as national chief last July and was the first woman to lead the organization, is suing the Assembly of First Nations and its executive for defamation and breach of contract.

In a statement of claim filed this month, Archibald alleged the Assembly of First Nations and its executive engaged in a "number of illegal and unlawful steps" against her, including suspending her as national chief.

After her election, Archibald called for the assembly to hire a forensic accounting firm to review its books.

The suit alleges the executive — which includes current national Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak — then "embarked on a campaign to sideline her and ultimately oust her as national chief."

"As a result of the above conduct, Ms. Archibald suffered damages which include defamation of character, unreimbursed legal fees, loss of income and pain and suffering," the statement of claim says.

Archibald was suspended in 2021 after she was accused of bullying and harassment, but chiefs reinstated her shortly after on the hopes the assembly could come together.

Her ouster in 2023 followed an independent third-party review that 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 job for trying to challenge the organization's status quo.

The Assembly of First Nations said it won't comment until the matter is resolved through a legal process.

The organization works as an advocacy body for some 630 First Nations chiefs across Canada, and is largely funded by the federal government, which relies on the AFN for help to consult on bills that will affect First Nations Peoples and communities.

Asked about the forensic audit, Anandasangaree said there are accountability mechanisms built into funding agreements with the federal government, "and the AFN is no different."

But the way the federal government approaches its relationship with the assembly is built on the "element of trust," he said.

"The primary conversation is not about accountability. The primary focus is about the relationship and we are very confident that relationship is strong."

Anandasangaree said previous governments had policies that required First Nations to release audited financial statements about salaries and expenses, saying their entire preoccupation was on accountability.

"Which really says, 'We don't trust our partners, and therefore, every dollar that goes out, we want to make sure that the bar of accountability is so high that it is virtually impossible to meet,'" he said.

"So in order for us to reset the relationship and go toward true partnership, we do need to trust each other and the processes that we have within our department."

At the AFN's upcoming annual general assembly in July, a plenary is scheduled on the draft agenda about the audited financial statements.

Another is scheduled for a March 2022 resolution passed by chiefs that called for an investigation and audit of the Assembly of First Nations' financial and management policies.

That resolution called for a review of the assembly's financial policies and practices, to review conflicts of interest with the national chief's office, the executive committee and the secretariat, and to make recommendations to ensure greater transparency and accountability.

It also called for the assembly to hire an independent auditor to review the past 10 years of financial activity, "with particular attention to recent AFN salary payouts and contracts," and to conduct a digital investigation into alleged breaches of communication.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 20, 2024.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2024
The Canadian Press

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