‘It’s a painful time for people:’ Advocate in B.C. asks AFN to hold off on July election

Some First Nations leaders are asking for the upcoming Assembly of First Nations elections for national chief to be postponed because they feel it would be unfair to do so during a pandemic.

The request came in the form of a letter from Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a lawyer now based in B.C. who was approached by chiefs with concerns.

This year the elections are to take place virtually in July.

“It’s a really painful time for people,” Turpel-Lafond told APTN News. “People have stopped having ceremonies, they’ve stopped connecting for public safety reasons and ah we’re not in a mindset where we’re able to meet and discuss things fully.”

In her letter Turpel-Lafond asked for the elections to be postponed until December but the AFN executive committee has decided to go ahead with it.

One of Turpel-Lafond’s main concerns is that 40 per cent of First Nations communities don’t have a reliable internet connection which would pose a problem for those wanting to cast votes.

She also said the pandemic is disproportionately affecting women could sway them from running in the election.

Turpel-Lafond recently authored a study that showed Indigenous women in B.C. were four to five times likelier to contract COVID-19 while at the same time experiencing less access to health and mental health services.

She said the AFN has never had a woman as national chief and the pandemic is just adding to the barriers women already face.

“Not only is this virtual election coming in a way that does not accommodate accessibility but it doesn’t acknowledge the position of women,” Turpel-Lafond said. “This virtual election, coming at this time and this way, is going to disadvantage women yet again. I think that is unacceptable. The time is up. There should be women candidates.”

Turpel-Lafond said the AFN should be offering women to break new ground and not postponing the election reflects poorly on the organization.

Sheila North is a former grand chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak. She said she was approached to run for AFN national chief but decided against it because of the pandemic.

“I decided to stay closer to home,” North told APTN. “I have to be closer to home to be part of the healing process gong forward with my community and my family so that’s one of the biggest reasons why I decided to stay in Manitoba and run here.”

North will be running again for Manitoba grand chief in their upcoming elections.

The nomination period for the upcoming AFN national chief elections will end on June 2 and the virtual election will take place July 7 but Turpel-Lafond said she would not be surprised if there is a motion put forward on Election Day to postpone.

She said an important part of the election process is the campaign, where candidates go to First Nations communities to whiteness issues first-hand which is not possible at the moment because of COVID-19 lockdowns.

“To put it bluntly, the most likely outcome of following through with the current virtual election plan is an election that’s less democratic, less fair, less accessible and it will result in a weakened ability for the AFN to represent and advocate for first nations.”

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