Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Cindy Woodhouse, who has taken a leave of absence from the role of Manitoba regional chief, announced in mid-October that she would seek the position of national chief for the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).
“A little small office in Manitoba is outgrowing me because the demands are hard. Our chiefs want support,” said Woodhouse, who says she’s been approached by chiefs from outside Manitoba for help.
Woodhouse believes her strength as a leader comes in building relationships.
“I wouldn't do anything without the approval of having a fulsome discussion from our chiefs on the floor. I'm going to take their direction,” she said. “I’ve built my relationships. I'm offering my relationships to our people in a good way. I always will anyway, whether I'm elected or not.”
For the AFN to be successful, she says, the national chief cannot stand on her own. She needs “many, many people” to help move the agenda forward to make lives better, especially for children.
She recalls being four years old, driving with her father Chief Garnet Woodhouse from her Anishinaabe community of Pinaymootang First Nation in Manitoba and meeting with other First Nations leaders in Vancouver for an AFN assembly.
“They were coming together to make a better life for our age, to try and help us become better, to try and help improve the lives that their kids would then face after all these dark things,” she said about the harms done by Canada’s colonial abuses.
Fast forward to the December 2022 AFN assembly when chiefs faced competing resolutions on how to move forward on a multi-billion-dollar child and family services settlement, a settlement Woodhouse was instrumental in negotiating.
“But when we focused on children, and we had all those different views and really strong people debating on all of this stuff. When we got everybody into one room, all of us, and Cindy Blackstock included, other chiefs included, everybody into one room, we came out of there with one resolution,” said Woodhouse.
Blackstock was the driving force behind the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal case that found Canada had discriminated against children and families in the child welfare system on reserve. She opposed the initial settlement reached between Canada and the AFN, because it excluding certain people. That one resolution reached by pulling together various views led to a new and improved settlement that excluded no one, and which was recently approved by the court.
“I've always been a uniter of our people. I want to continue to bring our people together in a good way,” Woodhouse said.
And bringing people together after the last two-and-a-half years of tension amongst AFN leaders and staff will be a task for any new national chief. The last elected national chief, RoseAnne Archibald, was ousted over allegations of harassment of staff and breaching the AFN whistleblower policy. It was a very public battle that at times pit community chiefs against the AFN executive.
“Number one, I think that we need to try and bring people back together again. I think that there has been fractures amongst our people and we're a small community right across the country,” Woodhouse said.
Healing and forgiveness have to take place, she adds.
“I’ve always been a team player,” said Woodhouse. “I’ll continue to try and work through things that need to be worked through.”
Woodhouse contends that if there are positive results from efforts placed on the work that needs to get done and on the issues that face First Nations, “we shouldn't have time to fight and get into the nitty gritty of things.”
The focus needs to be on moving forward, she says.
Some have insisted that gender-bias resulted in Archibald’s removal as the first woman to hold the position of national chief.
Woodhouse says she has also had “to weather some of that stuff” from men before, although not at AFN. She says that won’t keep her down.
“I know that being a woman in politics, anywhere, whether it's First Nations or not, is tough.”
For almost two decades structural changes to the AFN have been an ongoing effort, one that Woodhouse agrees “absolutely” needs to continue.
Those changes will include revamping the AFN’s charter and implementing the recommendations from the panel on Resolution 13, Becoming A Role Model in Ending Sexual Orientation and Gender-Based Discrimination Within the Assembly of First Nations.
Input on how to change the internal governance of the AFN has been ongoing with the creation of the renewal commission in 2005. That work is coming forward in a chiefs committee created in 2017 to review the charter.
Resolution 13 was passed in the December 2020 special chiefs assembly. This past July, the panel delivered its findings on the sexualized violence and harassment that operates within the AFN. Chiefs were told such behaviour is prevalent.
Plaguing the AFN are concerns the organization has lost its relevancy, that regional issues are best handled at regional tables rather than at the national level, and that the AFN is out of touch with the grassroots people
Woodhouse says AFN, including staff and committees, must build relationships with federal politicians to “make sure that AFN becomes relevant again.”
It’s also important to keep the grassroots informed about the AFN’s work and its accomplishments, something, she believes, hasn’t been done well.
“I think our communication needs to be more fulsome and we need to engage more with our communities and….I think that there's room for growth,” she said.
Woodhouse visited with Treaty 8 nations two months ago, she said, and has been talking with Treaty 6 and 7 nations as well. Alberta has had no regional chief since 2021 and many Treaty 8 nations in the province don’t want to be involved with the AFN.
The conversations have been “a little bit tough,” she says, but necessary as Alberta needs to be at the table for discussions involving changing the child welfare infrastructure, the second part of the human rights class action settlement that was reached earlier this year.
“One (Treaty 8) Elder got up and he said in the mic in our language that ‘AFN hasn't been here in six years’. And that made me feel sad…‘Well, I'm here,’ I said. ‘Like all I can do is be here and I'm here trying to listen and talk and bring us back together once again’,” said Woodhouse.
While she believes that Alberta has “internal issues” that the chiefs need to deal with, she also notes that “maybe sometimes the structures of the AFN don't fit” as the three treaty areas in Alberta are distinct, separate groups.
It’s something that changes to the AFN charter could address, she adds.
The next national chief may have to deal with a possible change of government with a federal election slated for no later than 2025. An election may remove the federal Liberals from power and result in a Conservative government.
Woodhouse says that she will build a relationship with a new government if that happens to be the election results.
Woodhouse focuses on Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre’s vocal commitment to resource revenue sharing.
“We're going to hold him to that because our First Nations, we've been saying that for a long time, (that) anybody in this country who's a billionaire or millionaire made their money from Indian land. Anybody. Any industry in Canada. If you made your money in Canada, you've made your money off the backs of our people. And so we absolutely welcome resource revenue sharing,” she said.
In recent weeks, Woodhouse says she’s had coffee meetings with representatives from the Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats.
“I want to work with all parties. I don't care who's in. And gone are those days of just ignoring First Nations. You can't do that in this country anymore. You won't get anything done. You'll have to work with our people,” she said.
Woodhouse says she wants to move government policy “outside the box” so First Nations can more effectively use programs. And government funding is high on Woodhouse’s list of priorities.
“Some of these policies don't always work for us or they box us in or they cause friction. And I think that we need to find a different way of doing that,” she said.
First Nations policing as an essential service is also a priority, and she notes that some communities don’t even have access to policing services.
Moving forward on the long-term reform of the First Nations Child and Family Services program is also high on Woodhouse’s list.
“If we thought compensation was hard, I think reforming a big, massive system, it's going to be more tough,” she said.
For more information about Cindy Woodhouse visit https://www.cindywoodhouse.ca/
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