7 candidates competing for Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs leadership address province’s chiefs

Seven candidates vying for leadership of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs addressed leaders from across the province Tuesday.

The AMC general assembly will vote for grand chief on Wednesday. Grand chiefs are elected for three-year terms.

A byelection was called to replace Arlen Dumas, who was stripped of his title earlier this year over allegations of sexual assault and harassment.

Four of the seven candidates running for grand chief are women.

On Tuesday, candidates spoke on the issues they would prioritize if elected, including overcrowding and homelessness, suicide, systemic racism, treaty obligations, missing and murdered Indigenous women and men, police reform, crime and bootlegging and First Nations-led health-care and healing.

The candidates included former O-Chi-Chak-Ko-Sipi chief Eugene Eastman, former Opaskwayak Cree Nation band councillor and vice-chief Jennifer Flett,  former Berens River chief George Kemp, councillor and former Pimicikamak chief Cathy Merrick, and the AMC’s First Nations family advocate Cora Morgan.

Also running are former CBC journalist and MKO grand chief Sheila North and Darrell Shorting, a band councillor for Little Saskatchewan First Nation.

Eastman said several chiefs believed in him and encouraged him to run for AMC grand chief. He spoke mainly in Cree, and told the crowd he was a firm believer in language, as language is “who we are.” He said as a residential school survivor, and growing up with survivors for parents, he understood “it’s a difficult road we’re all in” and knows what it feels like to suffer. He said he spoke from the heart because he spoke for the people. 

Jennifer Flett said she’d be the strongest voice for Manitoba First Nations, drawing on her knowledge of issues she’s witnessed first-hand. The former corrections officer vowed to work on several issues, including roads, funding for higher education, youth addictions programming and land-based programming. She said she would address overcrowding and homelessness, murdered and missing people, call for police reform and work to address the over-representation of Indigenous people in the justice system. Her main goal was to have more control over health systems, with regional hospitals and First Nations doctors and nurses.

George Kemp said he would work to uphold treaty agreements to ensure First Nations get their share of wealth and benefits. He said he would push for equality for First Nations when it comes to roads and infrastructure and would help boost communities’ economic opportunities. He said to help combat crime he would bolster First Nations police forces. 

Cathy Merrick said she would help address the uncertainty First Nations are facing, with elders struggling with the cost of living, mothers crying out over youth and child issues, mothers and fathers who are homeless, suicides and increasing violence, plus an “epidemic” of drug-dealing and bootlegging. 

She said young people feel hopeless, unmarked graves are being discovered, COVID and tuberculosis are affecting nations in the province, First Nations rights to water and lands are being infringed upon and ignored, treaty agreements are unfulfilled and the AMC itself is under public scrutiny and criticism. The former chief said she has overseen million-dollar projects in her home community, is a strong advocate and would speak for people on and off reserve equally. 

A group of young drummers in orange shirt sit in a circle.
Spirit Horse drum group performs at the grand opening of the AMC annual general assembly Tuesday in Winnipeg. (Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs/Facebook)

Cora Morgan said in her past role with AMC and more than 20 years experience in advocacy, human resources, business startups and family reunification, she has helped bring thousands of children home to their families, leveraged millions of dollars, took part in the MMIWG inquiry, helped bring an end to the practice of birth alerts, and has helped address homelessness. She said she would take a restorative justice approach to dealing with crime and safety issues in communities, while promoting ceremony to help bring about accountability and healing.

North, a member of Bunibonibee Cree Nation, said she wants to renew AMC by creating an inclusive place of stability, hope and power. She said the AMC’s role is to ensure the calls by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and MMIWG inquiry are met, and vowed to review the agency’s human resources and financial policies “to make sure that no one ever feels discounted or in any way not valued again at AMC.”

She said she wants AMC to empower people who may feel discriminated against or discarded, and the agency should work with all levels of government to advocate for treaties, land, children and CFS, and represent all isolated communities.

Darrell Shorting said he was running for grand chief to be a voice as well as to learn, and vowed to advocate for resources for the communities, as he lives on reserve and understands the realities. He said he would advocate for healing lodges for young people with addictions, but also for “arcades and pool tables,” as those are also healing. The former RCMP officer, child abuse investigator and employment and training co-ordinator said he believes communities can be more self-sufficient and helpful to each other. He also vowed to make medical care more accessible to remote communities.

Man stands in foreground, in front of almost-empty meeting room.
Grand Chief Scott Harper of Anishininew Okimawin (Island Lake Tribal Council) says individual Manitoba First Nations have very specific needs. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

Grand Chief Scott Harper of Anishininew Okimawin (Island Lake Tribal Council) will vote on behalf of the four communities he represents.

“We have very specific needs that may differ from southern communities, especially living in the isolated communities. Transportation, food and especially the high cost,” he said.

Harper said he’s looking for a grand chief that will work together with all the communities.

“Our needs are really different so having a grand chief or having a leader that can recognize the differences in each community and how they can support.”

The AMC represents 62 of the 63 First Nations in the province, advocating on behalf of more than 151,000 people. The chiefs vote Wednesday, with the tally and announcement of grand chief to happen shortly thereafter.

The annual general assembly is being held at the Wyndham Garden Winnipeg Airport hotel owned by Long Plain First Nation.