Bethany Maytwayashing is happy to finally see a woman in charge at the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC).
She hopes Cathy Merrick – the organization’s first female grand chief – will lead a more inclusive First Nations organization than her predecessor Arlen Dumas.
“(Electing Merrick) is great and a step towards reconciliation with women and problem solving,” said Maytwayashing, who accused Dumas of messaging her inappropriately in 2019.
“I think that being a female – that the grand chief would be more sensitive. The ‘old boys’ club’ they protect each other.”
Merrick replaced Dumas in an Oct. 26 byelection. The former grand chief was removed after a woman filed a complaint in March 2022 with Winnipeg police accusing Dumas of harassment and sexual assault.
Police have not announced any criminal charges and Dumas has always maintained his innocence.
He claims his communication style was misinterpreted when he reached out to First Nations women. He also said his cellphone was hacked to create false accounts online.
AMC didn’t follow up with the alleged victims. That sparked a wider conversation about how the political advocacy organization for 62 of 63 First Nations in Manitoba treats women.
Renée Yetman, who accused Dumas of using his power as the top First Nations leader in the province to sleep with her, said there’s unfinished business for the new grand chief.
“I feel a bit more safe (with a female grand chief) for myself and my sisters, who (allegedly have) been victimized and abused by a male leader who was supposed to be respectful towards women and protect us,” she said of Merrick’s election.
“The (alleged) survivors and victims of Arlen Dumas were disregarded and affected (by) how the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs ignored this serious issue.”
Merrick referenced the scandal and its impact in her pre-election speech on Oct. 25.
“…With our political institution under public scrutiny and criticism…it is important that the voice of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and of the grand chief resonates in our boardrooms, in our First Nation communities, in our gatherings, and also government chambers where decisions are made for our people,” she said.
Merrick said recapturing that power, influence and positive reputation required unity, mutual respect and recognizing the valued role women play in the culture.
“We go to men when we want to lift something heavy,” she said. “But we go to women when we want to revive the spirits of our people.”
Merrick, a former chief of Pimicikamak (Cross Lake) First Nation, didn’t name names or point fingers – an approach that propelled her past six other candidates, three of whom were women.
Merrick’s successor, Chief David Monias of Pimicikamak, said that’s why he nominated her for the top job.
“When I was looking at the state of the Manitoba chiefs it seemed like there was a lot of work to be done; (that) we were breaking apart quite a bit,” he said. “There’s a lack of unity there – part of what happened (with Dumas) and (the) COVID-19 (pandemic) played a role in that.
“Cathy is a person who has experience as a leader, as a chief, as (a band) councillor and (in) band administration. She is non-divisive, she is about healing…Being a woman was not necessarily the first reason why.”
Derek Nepinak, a former AMC grand chief, said he knew in advance he would be voting for a female candidate.
“I’m very happy with the outcome. I think it’s been a long time coming to find the right woman to lead the organization into the next chapter.”
He said women bring different leadership skills like (striking a balance) that he feels is “long overdue” at AMC.
Nepinak doesn’t know if the historical move to elect a woman was a result of the scandal or in spite of it.
“We don’t want that to continue to drag on,” he added. “We believe it’s time to write a new chapter. The reparations that need to be done are private and personal amongst the parties involved. And hopefully they can deal with those issues.”
But Maytwayashing and Yetman feel they are owed an end to the story if the the AMC gets a fresh start.
“Where is the accountability? Of Dumas? Of the AMC for Dumas?” asked Maytwashing, a member of Lake Manitoba First Nation who now lives on Vancouver Island.
“What was the result of the investigation into his phone being hacked?”
Yetman, a member of Nisichawayasihk (Nelson House) Cree Nation, said Merrick must do more than help chiefs put the Dumas days behind them.
“The grand chief needs to (put in) place a trauma-informed approach for the (alleged) survivors and victims,” Yetman said, “and a Matriarch Grandmother Council to help them with this process.
“I hope she does the right thing and acknowledge this in a good way. There is myself and others who want to feel better from this. We are tired of seeing (Dumas) walking around with sacred feathers.”
Merrick, an accomplished sun dancer and pipe carrier, has said in subsequent interviews that AMC needs healing. But she has not spelled out how that would take place.