Sheila North has officially announced she is running for national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
The grand chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), a group representing 30 First Nations in the province, is the third candidate to throw her hat in the ring.
North will be up against incumbent National Chief Perry Bellegarde and Russ Diabo, a Mohawk policy analyst from Kahnawake, Que.
“We need to empower our First Nations communities and all First Nations governments,” North said Wednesday during a two-day meeting of the Assembly of First Nations in Gatineau, Que.
“I have heard loudly and clearly from chiefs across Canada that we need change.”
If elected, North said she would fight to ensure treaty rights to health care and education are equally funded and would change the power structure of the AFN to highlight First Nation voices.
“I believe that AFN is not a government,” she said.
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government has lifted 62 boil water advisories in Indigenous communities, North said more work needs to be done to ensure clean drinking water is accessible to everyone.
“I feel like this current government is saying the right things and sometimes even doing the right things, but it’s not going far enough,” she said. “We already know what our rights are. We already know what our jurisdiction is and where it lies and it’s with us as people. We have to empower those voices across the country even more.”
Originally from Bunibonibee Cree Nation (Oxford House), North was the first woman elected to the MKO in 2015.
Prior to that, she worked as a journalist with CBC and CTV in Winnipeg.
She’s also known for her advocacy work on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
North announced on the weekend that she was stepping down as the MKO grand chief, but would not officially say whether she was running for the top AFN position.
John Nasecapow, of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba, questioned why North was leaving the MKO leadership role when the province has its own share of problems.
“Your backyard is a mess,” he said, referring to the washed out Churchill railway line that has isolated community members.
“The whole country is a mess,” North replied, thanking him for his comments, and saying she hopes to use her elevated role to stand behind all chiefs.
“There’s still a lot of groundwork to be laid and I will be there. And I will be there across the country to help the other regions do the same.”
When asked by a reporter whether she would be tougher on Trudeau than Bellegarde has been, North teared up.
“Yes,” she said, “because I am a mother and I’ve seen what the devastation of this government has done to our people, as a mother and as a daughter and as a friend. It’s always right here, the pain, but also the hope is always here and I think he needs to be reminded that his policies and his decisions are affecting real people every single moment of our lives and I’m going to remind him of that every time I have an opportunity.”
The AFN represents more than 600 First Nations communities across the country.
The vote for national chief is scheduled to take place in Vancouver July 25.