Sheila North will make bid to lead Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs

Manitoba’s first female grand chief is looking to hold the title again.

Sheila North, the former Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak grand chief, says she plans to enter the race to lead the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) once an election is called.

“It would be a tremendous honour,” she said on Thursday. “It’s a good time for women to get back into leadership roles that they were part of many generations ago in a big way. And so I’m happy to be part of the movement.”

She says as far as she’s aware, the AMC has never been led by a woman.

In 2015, North became the first woman to lead Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, an organization advocating for northern Manitoba First Nations. 

She did not seek re-election after her term expired, choosing instead to run for the national chief position at the Assembly of First Nations. The former journalist placed second among five candidates, losing to incumbent Chief Perry Bellegarde.

The AMC, which represents almost all First Nations in Manitoba, postponed its regular election last summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That extended current AMC Grand Chief Arlen Dumas’s three-year term by another year.

The assembly said in a news release at the time that its executive council of chiefs came to the decision after finding the organization’s constitution didn’t have provisions for a virtual election.

In an emailed statement on Thursday, AMC executive director Debbie Reid said the organization is “reviewing its current election processes in collaboration with public health orders and the direction of member Nations to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all involved.” 

No election date has been set. A spokesperson for the organization could not say whether Dumas will run for re-election once the race is called.

Access to health care, education, business opportunities

North says she hopes to use the position to address a lack of access to elder care, mental health resources and other health-care services on First Nations across Manitoba — issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“COVID-19 has changed a lot of things,” she said. “I think it’s highlighted a lot of the disparities that we already knew of. And I think we have a lot more work to do, unfortunately, to advocate for the things that our people need.”

North, who lives in Winnipeg, is originally from Bunibonibee Cree Nation, a community also known as Oxford House, that is about 575 kilometres north of Manitoba’s capital.

I want to be able to stand with communities on the things that they know that they need.– Sheila North

She says she wants to bring First Nations students and entrepreneurs greater access to education and business opportunities, particularly in northern Manitoba.

“We have huge economic power among First Nations,” she said. “We have to be able to support that even further, so more participation can happen and also growth can happen — not just within First Nations but, of course, [across] our province.”

North says she’s putting together an election platform that will reflect issues brought to her by chiefs across Manitoba, including a need for unity between the organization and the First Nations it represents.

“I want to be able to stand with communities on the things that they know that they need,” she said.

That includes strengthening the organization’s relationship with the provincial and federal governments, and making sure First Nations in Manitoba are involved in making decisions that affect them.

North says she’s heard chiefs across the province say the organization’s current leadership isn’t forceful enough.

“They don’t feel included or part of the process, or they’re included after the fact,” she said, “and that’s not respectful.

“That’s one of the things that I really like to do, is building relationships and building bridges between people, between groups, and creating a better level of understanding so we can get to a better place, not just for Indigenous people, but for all of us.”