Cindy Woodhouse, the new national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says her relatives were her role models.

The 40-year-old mother of three has said she grew up hearing the Anishinaabe language at home on Pinaymootang First Nation, north of Winnipeg, from her large family.

Her father, Garnet Woodhouse, was chief of the First Nation for over four decades.

"Our people are suffering out there, and I've seen it first-hand growing up right since I was born," Cindy Woodhouse said after she was voted national chief Thursday.

"People would be at our house and Dad would always make sure that nobody went hungry."

With her father standing nearby, Woodhouse delivered her victory speech draped with a white buckskin cape and dress, buttons made out of antlers, and long fringe that almost reaches the floor.

She said she was raised by her family to work with all people in a good way, which is what she hopes will guide her in working with the federal government.

"Every piece and square inch in this country and across Turtle Island is Indian land."

Woodhouse, a descendent of an 1871 Treaty 2 signatory, was raised not far from where it was signed.

National Chief Woodhouse thanks family, teachings for getting her to top job. #AFN

As a girl, she attended AFN meetings with her parents. The experience, combined with an education and cultural teachings, were pivotal in her learning about First Nations rights, she said during her campaign for national chief.

Her mother, Lorette Woodhouse, a teacher for 35 years, had an absent non-Indigenous father and a tough upbringing, being shuffled through different homes in an era before child and family services.

Her grandmother also experienced tough times but taught Woodhouse how to pray and have faith in the Creator.

Woodhouse has said she began “serving” First Nations while working toward a bachelor of arts degree at the University of Winnipeg.

She took on an adviser role to Francis Flett, a former AFN regional chief in Manitoba, and years later for former national chiefs Shawn Atleo and Perry Bellegarde.

She even babysat for Margaret Swan, the first woman grand chief in Manitoba in the '90s, a trailblazer who "broke down a lot of doors for First Nations," Woodhouse has said.

Most recently, Woodhouse worked with Manitoba chiefs as a regional AFN chief.

“I’ve never worked for any other government, except for First Nations governments,” she said.

Two years ago, she joined the delegation that met with Pope Francis in Rome to request an apology for the Catholic Church's role in residential schools. The Pope apologized at the end of the visit then later during a trip to Canada.

She was also part of negotiations in the $40-billion child welfare settlement agreement with the federal government.

Many have congratulated Woodhouse on social media, calling her friendly and passion about her work, while critics have suggested she is now a national puppet for the federal government.

Woodhouse said she'll move from Winnipeg to Ottawa to fulfil her new duties.

Woodhouse based her campaign on unity, saying First Nations leaders face many challenges but the AFN can provide strength in numbers.

"United, we will continue to grow First Nations’ impact on decision-making in our traditional territories, Ottawa and internationally," she said.

Woodhouse also pledged to prioritize advocacy for First Nations children, address policing and safety in First Nations communities, and ensure full implementation of the calls to action in the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

“The Assembly of First Nations is bruised but it’s not broken," Woodhouse said. "If there’s one unwavering thing, we always try to come together."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2023.

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