Shawn Atleo was elected as the new national chief of the Assembly of First Nations on Thursday after a marathon overnight voting session.

Atleo, the assembly vice-chief from B.C., was in a tough neck-and-neck battle with Perry Bellegarde, former leader of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations.

After eight ballots and almost 24 hours, neither had the 60 per cent of votes needed to win, but Bellegarde conceded.

The tight race has raised concerns about a split in the national body, which could impact its efficacy in tackling tough issues like the H1N1 threat in the coming months.

Atleo will replace Phil Fontaine as the grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Fontaine has held the position for three terms and is not seeking re-election.

Meanwhile, Fontaine said that Atleo is a motivated and energetic leader with a lot of experience.

"I believe we're in good hands with Chief Atleo at the helm of the Assembly of First Nations," Fontaine told CTV News Channel Thursday.

While Fontaine welcomed the outcome, he expressed concern about the perceived split during the voting sessions.

"Both sides had dug in their heels, and I was really quite concerned."

Still, Fontaine said that with a new leader in place, both factions within the assembly will be able "close ranks" and work together.

"We can't divide ourselves ... because that will just weaken (us)," he said.

Fontaine added that attacking poverty should be the AFN's first priority, as a housing crisis and health problems continue to plague communities across the country.

Fontaine said that those issues will only be exacerbated by H1N1, which has hit First Nations communities much harder than the rest of the country.

"We need to fix this, and we need to fix this urgently," he said.

Tight race

After the first ballot on Wednesday, Atleo appeared to be moving towards a strong lead with 43 per cent of the votes compared to Bellegarde's 29 per cent.

But the gap narrowed when John Beaucage, who was in third place with 15 per cent of the votes, withdrew from the race and his supporters shifted to the Bellegarde camp.

The same happened with Bill Wilson, a B.C. consultant and advocate for native rights, who had just one per cent of the votes. And Terry Nelson, chief of Manitoba's flood-prone Roseau River First Nation, dropped out with 10 per cent of the vote.

Candidates must receive 15 per cent of the votes in each ballot, in order to stay in the race.

After the fourth and fifth ballot, the gap had all but vanished and the two contenders were tied with 254 votes each. Atleo then managed to regain a slight lead after the sixth ballot, edging ahead until Beaucage withdrew, handing him the win.

In total, 639 chiefs from across Canada are eligible to vote, with the majority located in B.C. and the Prairies. Over the course of the eight rounds of balloting, the number of chiefs casting votes dwindled lower and lower.

Atleo's background

Atleo has been the AFN's B.C. chief for over five years, and has been a bloodline chief of the Ahousaht First Nation since 1999.

His election marks the first time since the mid-1970s that the AFN's top spot has been held by a chief from the West Coast, despite the high number of voting chiefs that live there.

His focus is likely to be on education, including skills training and teaching younger generations about the legacy of residential schools.

Economic development is also important to Atleo, who is expected to seek new partnerships between private industry and native communities while maintaining traditional native values.