18:27 Oct 26th, 2022
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs elects first female leader, Cathy Merrick
By: Brittany Hobson
Location: Winnipeg
Source: The Canadian Press

A woman will lead the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs for the first time in its nearly 35-year history. 

Chiefs in the province chose Cathy Merrick on Wednesday as the advocacy group's next grand chief.

Seven candidates were vying for the position during a byelection after the organization removed previous leader Arlen Dumas over sexual harassment allegations.

Merrick won on the second ballot with 37 out of 59 votes during the organization's annual general assembly in Winnipeg.

"I will work hard for our people. I will work hard for the small communities that think they don't have a voice. I will work hard for our nations to be represented in the assembly," she said after being declared the winner. 

Merrick is a councillor and former chief of Pimicikamak Cree Nation, also known as Cross Lake, in northern Manitoba.

Moments after being announced the winner Merrick was embraced by family and supporters. She said her eyes instantly flooded with tears. 

"I just put my head down. I gave thanks to the creator for putting me where I needed to be to be able to lead our chiefs with their support," she later told reporters. 

She said that history was made with Wednesday's election.

"I'm so honoured that the chiefs believed in me to be their leader, to be the first woman chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs ... I will do them proud with the work that I want to do."

Part of that work includes uplifting the voices of women and youth, she said. 

The results of an independent investigation released in June found Dumas had engaged in workplace sexual harassment. The assembly said it is committed to reflecting on and reviewing its workplace policies and practices to ensure it fosters a culture of support and respect. 

Merrick said her first point of business will be to correct the workplace culture "in a good way, in a good heart."

Chiefs have expressed concerns about mental health resources in communities coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of adequate health care for First Nations people. 

Merrick said she will use her experience as a health adviser for her community to advocate for better services in these areas. 

"My priority is for the health of the people. To be able to access good health (care) but not to take over a broken system."

George Kemp, a lawyer and the former chief of Berens River First Nation, came in second with 22 votes.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs represents 62 of the 63 First Nations in the province. A total of 59 chiefs or proxies took part in the vote. 

Pimicikamak Cree Nation Chief David Monias supported Merrick in her run. He said the community is proud of her. 

"I know you will do great things to support and empower First Nations citizens across the province," he said in a statement. 

Premier Heather Stefanson also congratulated Merrick on her win.

"As grand chief, she will provide great leadership in this important role, advocating on pertinent issues and advancing the priorities of Manitoba First Nations," she said in a statement.

"I welcome this new chapter and am optimistic and excited about the future of our province and growing the relationship and collaboration between the Manitoba government and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs under the leadership of Grand Chief Merrick."

Merrick is to serve in the role until July 2024. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 26, 2022.