OTTAWA — Assembly of First Nations organizers sent delegates home without a new national chief late Wednesday after six rounds of balloting failed to produce a winner with enough votes to clear the 60 per cent threshold necessary for victory.
With just 15 minutes to spare before Ottawa's downtown Shaw Centre had to close for the night, the problem was still apparent: A-F-N regional chief Cindy Woodhouse was still tantalizingly shy, with 50.8 per cent support from registered voters.
Her only remaining challenger, Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations vice-chief David Pratt, tallied 39.3 per cent of support from registered voters on the night's final ballot — enough to discourage him from conceding the race.
In total, 415 votes were cast in the final ballot of the night, out of a possible 461 registered voters -- both Chiefs and proxies.
Pratt had been expected to hand victory to Woodhouse after the fourth ballot, but a tense conversation unfolded instead between the pair on the assembly floor, a clear sign that their battle was not yet over.
Word of a sixth ballot elicited both groans and whoops from the gathered delegates, some of whom took to the floor microphone to urge organizers to call an end to the voting and declare Woodhouse the winner.
But Delbert Wapass, the chief of Thunderchild First Nation in central Saskatchewan, did the opposite, insisting that the assembly follow the procedures that govern it.
"Just because this is Indian politics does not mean this is a banana republic," Wapass said. "Let's stick to the rules: 60 per cent of the vote."
Ultimately, though, it was the venue's operating hours that forced an overnight delay, with voting scheduled to resume Thursday at 11 a.m. ET.
The night grew complicated when Sheila North, a former Manitoba grand chief and longtime advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women, threw her support to Pratt before bowing out of the race.
North, who ran unsuccessfully for the job in 2018, said she hoped the AFN would continue to push for better protections for Indigenous women and girls, and to confront gender-based violence.
"You can do it, chiefs," she told delegates. "Our relatives are waiting for us to do better."
Her name was the last of four to drop off the ballot over the course of nearly 10 hours of voting and counting that failed to identify a clear winner.
"I remind all of the candidates that are left that that's who we work for, the future generations," said Dean Sayers, a longtime Batchewana First Nation chief who dropped off after the second ballot.
"I hope that we are a fortitude, and strengthen how we're going to work together and unify across this country."
The election comes months after former national chief RoseAnne Archibald was ousted over the findings of an investigation into complaints from five staff members about her conduct.
The third-party independent review concluded some of Archibald's behaviour amounted to harassment, and that she had breached confidentiality rules and violated internal policies by retaliating against complainants.
Archibald denied the allegations. Her supporters maintain she was removed from the post for trying to change the organization's status quo.
Of the 231 chiefs who took part in the special assembly, 71 per cent voted to remove her.
Six candidates were vying to replace Archibald and interim national chief Joanna Bernard, including Reginald Bellerose, chair of the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority, and former Alberta regional chief Craig Makinaw.
Both fell away after bringing up the rear on the first ballot.
On Tuesday, Woodhouse earned a rousing cheer when she acknowledged Wab Kinew's election win in her province, where he became Canada's first First Nations provincial premier last month.
She also called for better First Nations policing, more communication between chiefs and the executive, and the need to lobby Ottawa more aggressively to ensure their concerns are addressed in the next federal budget.
During his speech, Pratt reminded delegates of the "great history" they share in their advocacy, and said if he is elected national chief, "we're going to shake this country up."
"We've got to stand together and send a message to governments across the country that enough is enough," Pratt said.
Sayers had vowed not to sit around Ottawa waiting for the prime minister to take action. Instead, he promised to be on the ground in communities and to take his cues from the chiefs.
North, meanwhile, called for a treaty among First Nations from across the country that she said would demonstrate a united front to the federal government — one that would summarily reject rules and legislation drawn up by outsiders.
According to the assembly's election procedures, each member nation has one vote, which can be cast either by the chief or by a registered proxy.
Shortly after the final results are announced, the newly elected national chief is expected to take part in an oath of office ceremony.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2023.
Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press