Garden Hill First Nation Chief David Harper has been named the new leader of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, an organization representing most First Nations communities in northern Manitoba.
Harper was elected to the position of MKO grand chief Wednesday afternoon during the 28th annual MKO assembly at Opaskwayak Cree Nation, near The Pas.
He won 60 per cent of the votes in a second ballot. Second place went to Jim Tobacco of Moose Lake while William Elvis Thomas of Nelson House was third. The fourth-place candidate, Brennan Manoakeesik of the Garden Hill First Nation, fell off the ballot after the first vote because he earned the fewest votes.
Harper was all smiles as he rose to thank all the voting delegates. He talked about how he wants to work on improving health care for northern Manitoba and ensuring First Nations people are involved at the table when government is making decisions that affect them.
"One of the demands is, 'Lets get the official recognition that we get included in every sitting of anything that anybody that talks about our people — that has policy about our people — that we be at that table. It's time that we get involved from the beginning of the process, of any process, not just health, but anything that they do from here on," he said.
Harper said his first priority will be to prepare northern Manitoba for the next round of swine flu, or H1N1, expected this fall.
He has been outspoken over the issue, which struck his community hard in the spring. This week, he criticized organizers of an international pandemic conference in Winnipeg for not initially inviting First Nations.
Medical experts from across Canada and around the world are meeting to review possible outcomes of the pandemic, and develop standardized guidelines for medical personnel in rural communities and hospital intensive care units.
A number of First Nations leaders are attending the two-day conference, which wraps up Thursday, but only after a last-minute invitation was extended.
Sydney Garrioch, the outgoing MKO grand chief, has also been critical of the federal government's involvement of First Nations leaders around pandemic planning.
Garrioch, who has been the MKO leader for six years, said as far as he knows, there are no concrete plans for how vaccines will be administered in northern aboriginal communities.
Garrioch made his last address to the MKO chiefs attending the assembly on Tuesday, earning a standing ovation.
John Patchinose, 69, from Moose Lake, said he is sad to see Garrioch leave.
"He is capable of helping out people throughout the north as well as the south, so I'm kind of disappointed he's leaving his position as a grand chief," Patchinose said.
"He listened to the elders and to the youth, and he cares about the youth, especially the youth for their education," said Wilfred Cook of the Sapotaweyak Cree Nation.
In an interview, Garrioch said it was time to step down and take time for himself, to enjoy a few activities such as fishing.
The MKO represents 30 First Nations in northern Manitoba.