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Meet the candidates vying to be the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations

OTTAWA — The Assembly of First Nations is set to elect a new national chief this week during a three-day special assembly in Ottawa.

OTTAWA — The Assembly of First Nations is set to elect a new national chief this week during a three-day special assembly in Ottawa.

The contest comes after the dramatic ouster of former national chief RoseAnne Archibald, who was voted out after colleagues accused her of creating a toxic work environment, an allegation she has denied.

After candidates plead their case one last time on Tuesday evening at an all-candidates forum, chiefs or their proxies from more than 600 member First Nations will elect the next national chief on Wednesday. 

Here are the six candidates competing to be the assembly's chief advocate. 

Reginald Bellerose: Bellerose, who is the chair of the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority and the Saskatchewan Indian Training Assessment Group, is hoping to secure the top job after an unsuccessful attempt in the last election. He wants to build generational wealth in communities, strengthen nation-to-nation relationships and to close the gap with northern and remote First Nations. "When it comes to housing, mental health, training and access to primary health care, that's all different from the southern perspective," he said at an all-candidates forum in Manitoba last week.

Craig Makinaw: Makinaw, the former chief of Ermineskin Cree Nation and former AFN Alberta regional chief, is a founding member of Natural Law Energy. During the all-candidates forum, Makinaw said communities need to be proactive in protecting membership rights. He said current membership codes as outlined in the Indian Act may lead to the removal of rights in coming generations. "We hear from some of our elders that once the last status Indian (has) passed away, (so do) our treaty rights," he said.

Sheila North: North, a former grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak and an advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women, is running on a platform promising to prioritize respecting the inherent rights of First Nations. North has also said the assembly itself needs to improve and act in the best interest of the chiefs it represents.

David Pratt: Pratt currently serves as the vice-chief for the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations. In announcing his bid to be national chief, he said the assembly is at a "critical juncture." He said the election is about restoring trust and rebuilding the AFN after years of internal turmoil that tested the legitimacy — and influence — of the organization.

Dean Sayers: Sayers, a longtime Batchewana First Nation chief, was most recently involved in negotiations for the Robinson Huron Treaty settlement, in which signatory First Nations argued that Canada and Ontario did not uphold their treaty obligations to make annual payments to Indigenous beneficiaries. They had first been promised in 1850, and were capped at $4 per person in 1875. Sayers said if he is elected, he would empower First Nations from coast to coast to enhance internal governance structures, and compel outside governments to honour promises made to communities.

Cindy Woodhouse: Woodhouse, who serves as the assembly's regional chief for Manitoba, was recently involved in a landmark $23-billion child-welfare settlement approved by the Federal Court in October. She said she would continue fighting for the rights and well-being of First Nations children if elected, and help to advance economic reconciliation.

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

Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press