After five rounds of voting, RoseAnne Archibald made history July 8 by becoming the first woman elected National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. With Mary Simon recently named Governor-General of Canada and Mandy Gull-Masty positioned to become Grand Chief in Eeyou Istchee, there is a growing movement towards empowering Indigenous female leadership.
“The AFN has made ‘her’-story today,” said Archibald in her acceptance speech. “Today is a victory and you can tell all the women in your life that the glass ceiling has been broken. I thank all of the women who punched that ceiling before me and made a crack.”
Seven candidates contested the position after Perry Bellegarde announced this spring that he would not seek re-election. Although Archibald didn’t receive the required 60% of votes on the last ballot, her remaining competitor, Muskowekwan First Nation Chief Reginald Bellerose, decided to concede before a sixth round of voting.
Archibald had publicly called on Bellerose to make room for the first woman AFN National Chief, following the “honourable path forward” of Nishnawbe Aski Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, who withdrew from the race after the third ballot to support her. Following his concession, Bellerose said that the chiefs made it clear they didn’t want back-to-back national leaders from Saskatchewan.
“Let’s take a collective deep breath and recognize that we have experienced a monumental shift in energy and consciousness,” stated Archibald. “The colonial and patriarchal systems are crumbling, and it can’t be stopped or reversed. We have all been awoken by this pandemic. Stay awake everyone for the evolutionary and positive changes to come!”
During the AFN’s 42nd annual general assembly, hosted virtually in Toronto by the territories of Six Nations of Grand River and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, 406 band council chiefs or registered proxies voted for national chief. The AFN represents over 900,000 people throughout 634 First Nation communities and other municipalities across the country.
As a third-generation chief, Archibald has over three decades of experience in First Nations politics. In 1990 at age 23, she became the first woman and youngest-ever to elected chief of the Taykwa Tagamou Nation in northern Ontario.
She later became the first woman and youngest deputy grand chief for Nishnawbe Aski Nation and then the first female and youngest grand chief for Mushkegowuk Council. After taking a break from politics for nine years to run a consulting business for First Nations leaders and organizations, she became the first woman to be elected Ontario Regional Chief in 2018.
“I was very much an activist chief,” Archibald told APTN News during her election campaign. “I blocked highways and participated in every kind of action in order to protect our rights. That is difficult to do in this kind of environment, but I want First Nations to know that I will be standing beside them, behind them and working with them in their struggles because the road ahead is still long for First Nations.”
University of Manitoba Native studies professor Niigaanwewidam Sinclair told CTV News that Archibald’s priority will be to confront the “incredible divisiveness” within the AFN, observing that this “very rancorous campaign involved a lot of finger pointing” with Archibald’s supporters pitted against the “old guard” of Bellegarde’s allies.
In December, Archibald had accused the AFN of misogyny and supported a resolution investigating sexual-orientation and gender-based discrimination. As she unveiled her 100-day leadership plan, she committed to making the organization a “safe, healthy and welcoming space for women and 2SLGBTQQIA+ peoples.”
“I will be revitalizing and evolving the Assembly of First Nations organization to reflect the people it serves,” said Archibald. “It’s important that 80% of the chiefs across Canada are men and they elected me. That to me speaks to the change that is happening, that our brothers understand the importance of creating space.”
Archibald’s election platform also focused on coordinating post-pandemic recovery plans and supporting community-driven solutions to move First Nations beyond reliance on federal dollars toward economic self-sufficiency. Her priorities include ending violence against Indigenous women, tackling the climate crisis and addressing systemic racism.
One of her first visits as National Chief was to Kamloops, BC, where the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced findings from the final report on the recovery of unmarked graves at the region’s former residential school.
“It’s a long process to get to justice and reparations and recover our children,” Archibald shared. “I have seen first-hand, speaking to people across this country, they demand action – not promises, not moments of silence. It will definitely be one of the things that will be a thread through my whole leadership journey. There must be truth before reconciliation.”