For Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) grand chief candidate Sheila North, representing chiefs and First Nations is about freeing them up to concentrate on their own specific issues while trying to make progress on broader concerns that affect them all.
“I understand the issues and I understand the role that an organization like AMC plays and it’s not to compete with First Nations. It’s to work alongside them and to respect their sovereignty as nations and provide advocacy as needed and also provide as much information as needed to make concrete decisions for the rights holders,” says North, a former journalist and a member of Bunibonibee Cree Nation at Oxford House, as well as grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) from 2015 to 2018. “These organizations are necessary and good for communities but also the chiefs who don’t have time to do everything they need to do. They need an advocacy organization that can work alongside of them to push forward the things that they need because unfortunately we are not in a position to say that we have everything we need.”
North said she had a lot of people approach her about seeking various political offices this year, including AMC grand chief, Assembly of First Nations (AFN) national chief, which she sought unsuccessfully in 2018, and even to be a candidate for Member of Parliament.
“All of those three things were in play this year,” she said in a recent interview with the Thompson Citizen. “When people are asking me to help in certain ways like this, running for leadership in positions like this, you have to take them seriously because they’re asking you for a reason and I not only take it as a privilege but as a responsibility to help if I can, where I can. I feel like I have a lot left to contribute in Manitoba. I learned a lot and I felt like we accomplished a lot in my term as MKO grand chief and I want to continue that kind of work with the chiefs and communities and councils at the overall province level. I feel like I have a lot left to contribute in Manitoba.”
The experience of Manitoba First Nations during the COViD-19 pandemic has demonstrated both their vulnerability and resilience, North says.
“We became the most marginalized or vulnerable because of the neglect and the disregard that Indigenous people face in Canada,” she said. “I think things could have been worse if it wasn’t for the resilience of First Nations and their ability to survive and thrive even in dire straits like that.”
The runup to the July 14 AMC election is different than in other years, with going community to community to talk with chiefs and councils in person not an option, but North says community health obviously trumps politics. “We’re dong the best we can and thankfully we have experience and a lot of historical facts to depend on so we’re able to pick up conversations and talk by phone or virtually. It would be better if we met in person but we don’t have that luxury at the moment. It’s better to keep people safe.”
The AMC represents 62 of 63 Manitoba First Nations and has twice been led by a Northern Manitoban: from 2005 to 2011 when Ron Evans of Norway House Cree Nation was grand chief, and currently with Arlen Dumas of Mathias Colomb Cree Nation at the helm.