Time to address the age of #MeToo in First Nations organizations

Hill Times May 17, 2021

Once upon a time, not so long ago, First Nations and many Indigenous societies governed with balance—men and women, including Two Spirits, equally shared the roles of leadership to serve a community. It wasn’t perfect. No governance structure is perfect.

Then came the Canadian government, overly influenced by the church and paternalism which created the myth that men were meant to be leaders and women to serve. Yes, the myth is alive and kicking in some organizations and sectors, the ones still stuck in the dark ages.

When women aren’t heard at the levels of decision-making, women’s voices are silenced. When women are victimized, then their voices are also silenced. How long did it take the movie and film industry to allow the voices of sexual harassment and assault victims to be heard? Years, perhaps decades. What a shame that women’s voices were not respected when they pleaded for consequences for perpetrators.

The most recent entry to the #MeToo movement is in First Nations organizations. Complaints of sexual harassment occurring at past Assembly of First Nations events have been voiced. Some took to social media to share their stories and individuals found support from others with similar experiences, and perhaps a bit of healing has started. First Nations chiefs voted on a resolution at the December 2020 assembly to strike a panel to review the issue of sexual harassment and rebuild structures to ensure safety in the future. The resolution passed with 78 per cent, which means some voted against it. First Nations communities, especially those who have spoken up about the experience of being sexually harassed, are waiting for action.

This is not unique to First Nations—it is a challenge in other sectors and other groups. Governance structures matter. While none are perfect, they are expected to be built and implemented with the best interests of all its citizens. There are some serious questions to be asked about the assembly’s structures, especially when they hinder a robust response to halt sexual harassment. Hypothetically, how are regional and national leaders held accountable, just like in any other national organization? Is there a clear documented process to resolve sexual harassment without retribution?

The structure of the Assembly of First Nations would benefit from some serious (re)thinking. But perspectives on the future of the Assembly of First Nations range all across the political map, from confidence in the status quo, all the way through to a full restructuring to align with one or another theory of governance. For instance: the assembly is an assembly of chiefs and therefore more like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities which brings together mayors. But the federation votes with mayors, plus councillors, but the assembly is only the chiefs. Should this be up for discussion?

The Assembly of First Nations election for national chief is set for July. Will this be the time when First Nations commit to respect women in all aspects of governance of this national organization? Will any women run for national chief, or is it still the old boys club? Will the positions of campaign managers, campaign communications directors, be filled by many women?

Leaders in every organization are responsible to set the tone for safety and ensure that sexual harassment is not tolerated. Here’s hoping that this 2021 AFN election is all about rebuilding for balance. Here’s hoping that every single individual who chooses to run for national chief has a big plank in her or his platform regarding powerful actions to stamp out sexual harassment.