Abram Benedict elected new Ontario regional chief during assembly held in Six Nations

Akwesasne Grand Chief Abram Benedict is the new Ontario regional chief after a tight election on Wednesday held in Six Nations of the Grand River.

He beat former Batchewana First Nation Chief Dean Sayers, 50 votes to 48 votes, after four rounds of voting.

The Chiefs of Ontario election took place at the Annual Chiefs Assembly, being held this week in Six Nations.

The organization represents more than 130 First Nations in the province. In the past year, the group has called for a moratorium on mining claims staked across the province, after it said say some First Nations have seen up to a 30 per cent increase in claims staked in their territories over the past year.

In May, it launched a constitutional challenge against the province and the government of Canada, alleging First Nations are being denied equal access to justice.

Last year, it asked the Federal Court to exempt their communities from the federal carbon tax, saying the imposition of the price on carbon is leaving their communities worse off than others in Canada and breaching the principles of reconciliation. The issue was something Benedict has spoken out about.

'We need to be ahead of the ball'

After being sworn-in on Wednesday, Benedict spoke to the assembly audience, saying "sacred teachings" guide the chiefs.

"Our language, our culture, is extremely important. They reminded me that I represent and have been instilled with great honour and privilege to represent our region," he said.

In a post-election interview with CBC Hamilton, he said it felt "surreal" to be the new regional chief.

His position as Akwesasne Grand Chief is up for election in a few weeks. Akwesasne is a Haudenosaunee community located on the Canada-U.S. border about 120 kilometres west of Montreal. It occupies territory in Ontario, Quebec and New York state.

Benedict said a top priority as regional chief will be building relationships with lawmakers.

"We're really reactionary right now. We need to change that. We need to be ahead of the ball instead of behind the ball," Benedict said.

Six candidates made their pitch Wednesday

This week's assembly has brought chiefs from across the province together for three days to Six Nations territory, the most populous reserve in the country. The assembly includes the election and meetings about various issues including health, First Nations rights and more.

Moments before Benedict, on the right, learned he won the election.
Moments before Benedict, on the right, learned he won the election. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Not all chiefs were present, however — the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council, the traditional leaders of the Haudenosaunee people who many see as the representatives of the community in Six Nations, released a letter leading up the assembly. The council said it would not be participating or endorsing the event.

"The Traditional Selection Process you follow... remains a colonial method tied to the assimilation of our people," reads the letter, signed by council secretary Hohahes Leroy Jock Hill. "You have already disrespected our Confederacy by not first approaching our leadership prior to setting a date for your event. Your approach in coming to our leadership at the last minute is unacceptable."

For those in attendance on Wednesday, chiefs and locals heard from the six nominated candidates running to be the regional chief.

The nominees included Benedict and Sayers, as well as:

  • Glen Hare, who was elected Ontario regional chief in 2021.

  • Grassy Narrows First Nation Chief Rudy Turtle.

  • Former Lake Huron Regional Deputy Grand Council Chief for the Anishinabek Nation Travis Boissoneau.

Each candidate spoke for 10 minutes to woo fellow chiefs before answering some questions from them.

Some of the topics broached included how to address drug addiction, crime, boil water advisories, land rights, negotiations with the federal and provincial governments and ways to engage youth.

Ontario Regional Chief Abram Benedict won a close election on June 12 in Six Nations of the Grand River.
Ontario Regional Chief Abram Benedict won a close election on June 12 in Six Nations of the Grand River. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Benedict emphasized increasing the group's presence and lobbying efforts at Queen's Park and Parliament Hill. "We need an ear and pulse on the political ground," he said to the crowd.

Each candidate lined up and the chiefs voting for them would stand behind them.

Sayers had the lead by one vote in the first two rounds of voting. Benedict took the lead by seven votes in the third round.

Hare, the outgoing regional chief, was eliminated from the race after the third round of voting and received a standing ovation as he walked out of the line.

Excitement built up as chiefs started lining up behind Sayers and Benedict in the fourth round. Whoops, hollers, applause and cheers followed after Benedict was announced the winner.

The assembly continues Thursday, with an expected economic update and an update on a First Nations community building retrofit program.