'Herstory' made as leaders adopt resolutions that promote gender equality, inclusivity at AFN

First Nations leaders are gathered in Ottawa for the 2022 Assembly of First Nations' Special Chiefs Assembly. While few resolutions have been discussed so far, two were passed that signal a shift in gender equality for women in leadership.

‘They shouldn't have to choose from being a mother and being a leader,’ says Kukpi7 (Chief) Judy Wilson

Elected women chiefs in the British Columbia caucus at the AFN special chiefs assembly in Ottawa on Wednesday. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

While leaders have so far addressed only a handful of the long list of resolutions slated for discussion at this week's Assembly of First Nations (AFN) assembly, two resolutions have been passed advancing gender equality for women in leadership.

"We need to see more of our women in roles of leadership," said Naa Sháade Eric Háni Morris of the Teslin Tlingit Council.

Despite the increase in the number of First Nations women in leadership positions, Morris said policies at the AFN are "silent" on benefits like maternity leave for regional chiefs. It's why he moved a resolution that was passed unanimously by the hundreds of chiefs and proxies gathered in Ottawa for the 2022 Special Chiefs Assembly.

The resolution directs the AFN to implement recommendations from a 2020 report that reviewed compensation for the role of regional chief, including providing maternity and parental leave. It also calls for supporting families by providing child care at assemblies. 

Naa Sháade Háni Eric Morris of the Teslin Tlingit Council brought forward a resolution to help remove some barriers for women for leadership. (Alistair Maitland/Teslin Tlingit Council)

Morris said the changes will help remove some barriers for women to thrive in leadership positions.

Neskonlith Indian Band Kukpi7 (Chief) Judy Wilson said it's "long overdue."

The AFN elected its first woman as national chief in 2021, and there are currently three regional chiefs who are women. Wilson said more and more First Nations are electing women as chief and to council. 

Judy Wilson looks austere as she stands on a street.
Judy Wilson is a Kukpi7 (chief) of Neskonlith in B.C. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

"They shouldn't have to choose from being a mother and being a leader," said Wilson.

"We need to make sure that they can lead with confidence and they'll enjoy the rights of all other women when it comes to maternity."

Ogimaa Kwe (Chief) Linda Debassige of M'Chigeeng First Nation said the benefits also need to be applied in communities. She gave birth to a daughter last year, and wasn't eligible for maternity leave.

"Leaders like me and I know most women dedicate their lives to their community 24/7," she said.

"I was in labour until 5 p.m. on a Zoom call for my community and gave birth to my daughter just before 7 p.m. Just how dedicated we are."

Change also needed at AFN assemblies, say critics 

While the resolution passed unanimously, several chiefs expressed their opinions on the issue — some noting more needs to be done, both in communities and on the assembly floor.

Chief Jeff Copenace of the Ojibways of Onigaming said issues like missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls should have been at the forefront of the assembly in light of the news of charges laid in the deaths of four Indigenous women in Winnipeg. Some of their family members addressed the assembly late on Tuesday afternoon after a number of delegates left.

Copenace also called out men who were seen at the assembly who have allegedly abused or mistreated women, as to why more needs to be done.

"It's not enough," he said, followed by applause and a standing ovation.

"How do we expect police or non-Indigenous governments to take this seriously if we're not going to hold our own men accountable?"

The chief of Ojibways of Onigaming First Nation Jeff Copenace says issues like missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls should have been at the forefront of the assembly. (Submitted by Jeff Copenace)

Chief Angela Levasseur, the first female chief elected by the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, expressed resentment for how some chiefs and proxies have been treating AFN assembly chair Wina Sioui, stating she doesn't believe a man would be spoken to in the same way when procedural issues have been raised on the assembly floor.

"Our men must be held accountable for the way that they treat our women and the example that they set," she said.

AFN to update National Indian Brotherhood name

On Tuesday, the chiefs in assembly also passed a resolution to update the AFN's corporate name from the National Indian Brotherhood to promote more "welcoming and inclusive" language.

When the AFN was created in 1982, the organization maintained the name of its forerunner as the corporate body that enters into legal agreements ranging from funding arrangements with the federal government to leases. 

The name change was brought up by a delegate at the July annual general assembly, to thunderous applause from the assembly. 

"This is a moment in 'herstory,'" said National Chief RoseAnne Archibald on Tuesday.

"I want you to give yourself a big round of applause, chiefs, because you have made a change that signals to women and girls everywhere and gender diverse people that the AFN has a space for them."


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.