AFN national chief contenders weigh in on embattled federal minister Carolyn Bennett’s future

The race to lead the Assembly of First Nations is coming at a politically-charged time.The seven candidates vying to replace chief Perry Bellegarde were unveiled just one week after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced that the remains of 215 children had been found on the site of a former residential school in B.C. Less than one month later, the discovery of hundreds more unmarked graves at the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan cemented reconciliation and accountability at the top of Ottawa’s political agenda. And whoever wins the campaign will need to represent the interests of 634 First Nations before the federal government — including the minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, who is now facing a controversy of her own.Last week, Carolyn Bennett apologized for sending an “insensitive and inappropriate” text to Indigenous MP Jody Wilson-Raybould, in which she suggested the Indigenous politician was seeking to avoid an early election call in order to claim her MP pension. Wilson-Raybould, who will become eligible for the pension after Oct. 19, had criticized Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for “jockeying for an election” as the devastating legacy of residential schools was being uncovered. Trudeau said he was “deeply disappointed” by Bennett’s actions, but stopped short of stating whether he planned to remove her from her cabinet post.Former Manitoba regional chief Kevin Hart, the only candidate from that province, says the prime minister’s response doesn’t go far enough.“An attack on a First Nations woman needs to be treated as an attack on all of us,” Hart told the Star, saying Bennett must resign for sending the “disrespectful and disparaging” message.Hart said he was particularly upset by the text — which Wilson-Raybould deemed racist for portraying Indigenous people as “lazy” who “only want $” — because it was sent just before the scope of the Saskatchewan discovery came to light.The AFN has so far declined to comment on the issue, as has the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Last week, David Chartrand, speaking on behalf of the Métis National Council, called for Bennett’s resignation. Bennett’s office said the minister was not available this week to comment on the matter. Two other candidates who responded to the Star said they wanted to see the federal government create an opportunity for dialogue between Bennett, Wilson-Raybould and members of the Indigenous community who felt hurt by Bennett’s remarks. “The next steps for resolving this incident are multi-layered. What processes are currently in place for lateral violence that occurs between elected members of Parliament? Are both parties willing to enter into a restorative mediation circle, often practised in holistic cultures?” Cathy Martin of the Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation said in a statement.“Is (Bennett) self-reflecting about the effect that her comment has on her colleague, but on her role as a representative of Canada at the helm of (Crown-Indigenous Relations)? Will Canada continue to support this systemic racism by turning a blind-eye to this comment that is not only damaging to...Wilson-Raybould but to each and every First Nation in this country?”Bennett has issued a public apology, saying “interpersonal dynamics” clouded her judgment. Last Friday, Wilson-Raybould told the Star that the minister sent a followup text an hour and a half after the initial message, simply writing “Sorry…”Martin, a band councillor and the sole contender from Quebec, said it’s up to Bennett herself to answer those questions. That’s a view shared by Lee Crowchild, former chief of Tsuut’sina Nation.Crowchild said he’d like to see the matter resolved through traditional means, such as a ceremony in which all parties are able to share their perspectives before deciding to make peace — or continue the battle.At that point, it would be up to the prime minister to make a final call on Bennett’s fate. “If he says, ‘We’re going to let go of Minister Bennett’, there’s probably a lot of satisfaction in that. But if he says, ‘No...I’m not going to do that,’ then he has to deal with the unrest that can come from that,” Crowchild said. “There has to be a real dialogue that takes place, not just window-dressing apologies.” Before the final list was announced earlier this month, there was speculation that Wilson-Raybould, who previously served as the Regional Chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, might add her name to the candidate list. No candidates from B.C. are running in this year’s contest, despite the province holding the largest share of votes.The campaign is slated to end July 7 during the organization’s virtual annual general assembly. But the virtual nature of the election, which would see hundreds of chiefs or their proxies across the country remotely cast their votes, has sparked some calls to hold off the race altogether.On July 6, a resolution is expected to hit the assembly floor to postpone the vote until it can be held i

AFN national chief contenders weigh in on embattled federal minister Carolyn Bennett’s future

The race to lead the Assembly of First Nations is coming at a politically-charged time.

The seven candidates vying to replace chief Perry Bellegarde were unveiled just one week after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced that the remains of 215 children had been found on the site of a former residential school in B.C.

Less than one month later, the discovery of hundreds more unmarked graves at the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan cemented reconciliation and accountability at the top of Ottawa’s political agenda.

And whoever wins the campaign will need to represent the interests of 634 First Nations before the federal government — including the minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, who is now facing a controversy of her own.

Last week, Carolyn Bennett apologized for sending an “insensitive and inappropriate” text to Indigenous MP Jody Wilson-Raybould, in which she suggested the Indigenous politician was seeking to avoid an early election call in order to claim her MP pension. Wilson-Raybould, who will become eligible for the pension after Oct. 19, had criticized Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for “jockeying for an election” as the devastating legacy of residential schools was being uncovered.

Trudeau said he was “deeply disappointed” by Bennett’s actions, but stopped short of stating whether he planned to remove her from her cabinet post.

Former Manitoba regional chief Kevin Hart, the only candidate from that province, says the prime minister’s response doesn’t go far enough.

“An attack on a First Nations woman needs to be treated as an attack on all of us,” Hart told the Star, saying Bennett must resign for sending the “disrespectful and disparaging” message.

Hart said he was particularly upset by the text — which Wilson-Raybould deemed racist for portraying Indigenous people as “lazy” who “only want $” — because it was sent just before the scope of the Saskatchewan discovery came to light.

The AFN has so far declined to comment on the issue, as has the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Last week, David Chartrand, speaking on behalf of the Métis National Council, called for Bennett’s resignation.

Bennett’s office said the minister was not available this week to comment on the matter.

Two other candidates who responded to the Star said they wanted to see the federal government create an opportunity for dialogue between Bennett, Wilson-Raybould and members of the Indigenous community who felt hurt by Bennett’s remarks.

“The next steps for resolving this incident are multi-layered. What processes are currently in place for lateral violence that occurs between elected members of Parliament? Are both parties willing to enter into a restorative mediation circle, often practised in holistic cultures?” Cathy Martin of the Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation said in a statement.

“Is (Bennett) self-reflecting about the effect that her comment has on her colleague, but on her role as a representative of Canada at the helm of (Crown-Indigenous Relations)? Will Canada continue to support this systemic racism by turning a blind-eye to this comment that is not only damaging to...Wilson-Raybould but to each and every First Nation in this country?”

Bennett has issued a public apology, saying “interpersonal dynamics” clouded her judgment. Last Friday, Wilson-Raybould told the Star that the minister sent a followup text an hour and a half after the initial message, simply writing “Sorry…”

Martin, a band councillor and the sole contender from Quebec, said it’s up to Bennett herself to answer those questions.

That’s a view shared by Lee Crowchild, former chief of Tsuut’sina Nation.

Crowchild said he’d like to see the matter resolved through traditional means, such as a ceremony in which all parties are able to share their perspectives before deciding to make peace — or continue the battle.

At that point, it would be up to the prime minister to make a final call on Bennett’s fate.

“If he says, ‘We’re going to let go of Minister Bennett’, there’s probably a lot of satisfaction in that. But if he says, ‘No...I’m not going to do that,’ then he has to deal with the unrest that can come from that,” Crowchild said.

“There has to be a real dialogue that takes place, not just window-dressing apologies.”

Before the final list was announced earlier this month, there was speculation that Wilson-Raybould, who previously served as the Regional Chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, might add her name to the candidate list. No candidates from B.C. are running in this year’s contest, despite the province holding the largest share of votes.

The campaign is slated to end July 7 during the organization’s virtual annual general assembly.

But the virtual nature of the election, which would see hundreds of chiefs or their proxies across the country remotely cast their votes, has sparked some calls to hold off the race altogether.

On July 6, a resolution is expected to hit the assembly floor to postpone the vote until it can be held in person.

“Because of issues with connectivity and online elections...it could potentially put the whole result into question,” B.C. Regional Chief Terry Teegee told the Star.

The national chief is elected through a ranked ballot system, with the winning candidate requiring 60 per cent of the votes to lock down a win. With seven candidates on the slate, it may take several rounds before a winner is declared.

Technical difficulties could mar that process, Teegee said, but there are other reasons to hit pause.

“Now, more so, anecdotally, because of Kamloops and Cowessess, a lot of chiefs are drawn to the concerns with residential schools,” the regional chief said.

While some chiefs are keen to see the election go ahead as planned, others wonder if the recent discoveries have rendered an election inappropriate.

“A lot of wounds have reopened,” Teegee said, adding that while he is personally preparing for the election to move forward, it could be months before a general assembly representing hundreds of First Nations could convene safely in person.

It is currently unclear how such a significant delay would impact the race, or whether it would open up the opportunity for other candidates to throw their names in the ring.

The AFN’s Chief Electoral Officer, Ron Laufer, said he wasn’t able to comment on the specifics of such a scenario.

Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel