New Ontario regional chief elected to ‘lobby’ Doug Ford

By Alan S. Hale June 13, 2024

Ontario’s newly elected regional chief at the Chiefs of Ontario’s annual assembly in Six Nations of the Grand River on June 12 (Chiefs of Ontario)

It came right down to the wire, but after four ballots of voting, First Nation leaders in Ontario chose Akwesasne Grand Chief Abram Benedict to be Ontario regional chief.

Incumbent regional chief Glen Hare was eliminated in the third round of voting at the Chiefs of Ontario’s (COO) general assembly on Wednesday. On the final ballot, Benedict managed to nudge past Batchewana First Nation Chief Dean Sayers — who had not publicly announced his candidacy — by just two votes.

It will now be Benedict’s job to represent the interests of Ontario First Nations provincially and federally. Before the vote, he promised his fellow chiefs that he would change the approach taken by Hare and work within Canada’s political systems to be more effective, rather than trying to “change the systems … from the outside-in.”

“I will make sure that we keep the pulse on regional provincial legislation, provincial regulations that impact our people and communicate that back to you,” Benedict told the chiefs.

“Legislation and regulations have been changed in this province without any consultation with us. It was posted on some website or some gazette nobody looks at. Then, at the end of the day, what happens, after the rules or the legislation has been changed … you have people going on computers thinking they can start exploring our territories for mines.”

Aside from keeping on top of what the government is doing, Benedict argued that the regional chief needs to be inside Queen’s Park and Parliament more often.

“We need to make sure we are holding the government to account, making the presentations, and lobbying, and lobbying, and lobbying, and lobbying,” he said.

This is something, Benedict added, their adversaries at the Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO) have been far more effective at. He cited Bill C-53, federal legislation to implement the self-governance agreement negotiated by the MNO, as an example.

“This bill did not come out of nowhere. It was in development for a long time, and us not having our ear-to-the-ground, politically, to know that this was coming forward is a problem,” he said.

Can Benedict mend relationship with Ford?

Although Benedict said his priority is to “build relationships with all levels of government,” he will inherit a very strained relationship with Ontario’s PC government and Premier Doug Ford. Ford stopped meeting with former regional chief Hare last fall after he publicly called for former municipal affairs minister Steve Clark to resign.

In his own re-election pitch, Hare defended that decision, noting that he had been instructed to do it by the chiefs and that it was necessary to defend the Greenbelt.

“They are not friends with me right now, and I don’t miss them,” said Hare of the PCs, adding that the COO has since shifted tactics to launching lawsuits against the province. “We don’t lose any ground by them not talking to us, we can live without them.”

Benedict, however, argued the COO needs to be prepared to deal with adversarial governments, especially if Conservative Party of Canada leader Pierre Poilievre becomes prime minister.

For his part, Ford congratulated Benedict on his win over social media, saying he is looking “forward to working together on shared priorities and initiatives that will support First Nations people across Ontario.”

Queen’s Park Today published a Q&A with Benedict last month where he dove deeper into how he hopes to manage First Nations’ relationships with Queen’s Park.