New review sheds light on sexual harassment, bullying inside AFN

Policy changes much needed review’s authors say.

Unwanted touching, comments about pornography and invitations to hotel rooms.

They’re just some of the findings of an independent investigative review on sexual orientation and gender-based discrimination within the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).

The review was led by Dr. Gwendolyn Point, Debbie Hoffman and Amanda Barnaby Lehoux. It was presented to chiefs during the AFN annual assembly on July 12.

Using an employee survey, written submissions and interviews, the review noted numerous “toxic” behaviours within the organization, ranging from disrespect, lack of inclusivity, lack of confidentiality and the dismissal of abusive and discriminatory behaviours. That includes instances of lateral violence, abuse of power, abuse of technology, such as cyber-bullying and sexting, verbal harassment, breach of confidentiality and sexualized harassment and bullying.

In some encounters, employees stated they had been subjected to explicit comments about sex and pornography or were asked to watch pornography with men in leadership positions.

“The Panel heard from individuals across the entire organization who felt that some of those in leadership positions behaved inappropriately with little, if any, accountability,” it said.

“The Panel heard that a predatory culture has become so pervasive and threatening within the AFN that female employees and leaders share information with each other about men who are unsafe to be around.”

The review also considered how colonial and intergenerational trauma continues to impact the AFN and its members.

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The review lists recommendations, including mandatory training, a zero-tolerance policy at AFN events; establishing an Independent Office for Complaints and Investigations and decolonizing the organization as a whole.

“The AFN cannot end lateral violence, bullying, sexualized violence, and discrimination within the organization until the colonial and intergenerational trauma that underlies these behaviours is fully recognized and addressed,” says the report.

Leaders respond

The findings weren’t surprising to Acting AFN Regional Chief Mary Jane Jim.

Jim said she’s been aware of stories circulating for years that the AFN “wasn’t safe.”

She noted her region has been largely supportive of the review. Former Chief Doris Bill of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation, located in Whitehorse, seconded a resolution mandating an independent investigative review. The resolution passed in late 2020.

“We had fallen into a culture of keeping our stories quiet and not taking action,” Jim said. “I think this is going to create a wave of change.”

She added it’s now up to the youth and young leaders to continue upholding that change.

For Aly Bear, 3rd vice chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan (FSIN), the review is “long overdue.”

Aly Bear
Aly Bear on Face to Face. Photo: APTN.

But Bear notes many other institutions like law firms and universities aren’t immune from inappropriate behaviour.

“I just feel like this is something that happens kind of everywhere, but the AFN is finally calling it out and wanting to be a role model, to treat our employees better, to treat one another better so that we can actually work and feel safe in our workplace.”

Bear said she would like to see the AFN be a role model in providing a good working environment for all.

“I want it to be a space where everyone feels welcome, whether they’re two-spirited, whether they’re a woman, whether they’re a man, it doesn’t matter. We all need and deserve to feel safe, especially in our workplaces.”

AFN promises change

The review also elicited a response from the new head of the organization.

Interim National Chief Joanna Bernard said the AFN’s executive committee was “deeply disturbed” by the review’s findings.

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“No individual should ever experience sexual orientation – or gender-based discrimination, hate or bullying of any kind,” she said in a press release.

“The personal and professional well-being of our staff, AFN members, and all First Nations is our utmost priority, and we do not take this responsibility lightly. We are committed to fostering an inclusive and respectful environment where everyone feels safe and valued.”

Bernard said the executive committee is reviewing the recommendations.

She noted the AFN is taking measures to address incidents of sexual orientation and gender-based discrimination, such as enhancing, renewing or modifying existing policies and codes of conduct.

Its also developing new harassment reporting procedures and ensuring a safe and respectful working environment that relies on First Nations teachings and traditions.

Jim said while it will likely take some time to get new procedures up and running, she’s confident the AFN “will wade through it.”

“It has to be enough. We have to take action. There is no room for setting aside policy changes and procedural changes anymore.”

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