WINNIPEG -- Outside Winnipeg's convention centre, a sacred fire is burning.

Inside the building, chiefs from across the country are meeting to elect a new national leader for the Assembly of First Nations amid questions on whether the organization is still a relevant voice for aboriginal people.

As the assembly prepares for some soul-searching over the next three days, many say it will take a monumental shift to regain the support of the next generation.

"The grassroots have said we need a voice," said Grand Chief David Harper, head of host organization Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents northern Manitoba First Nations. "There is going to be a lot of restructuring that needs to take place. That's something the next national chief will have to do."

There aren't many vying for the job that came open following the resignation of former national chief Shawn Atleo. When Atleo ran for re-election in 2012, he faced seven other competitors. This year, there are three names on the ballot.

Perry Bellegarde, chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, is chasing the top job, along with Ghislain Picard, regional chief for Quebec and Labrador. Picard became interim national chief following Atleo's resignation. Leon Jourdaine, chief of the Lac La Croix First Nation in northwestern Ontario, is also running.

While supporters of the AFN say it is still a vital lobbying group, others point to the short list of those running for national chief as a symptom of the need for change.

"The AFN has already lost much of the support of the grassroots," said Niigaan Sinclair, assistant native studies professor at the University of Manitoba. "It's continuing to lose the support of chiefs now. For the most part, all of the young chiefs and aspiring leaders who are coming up ... they see no interest in working at that level."

The next generation of First Nations leaders are interested in the environment, jobs and employment and violence against women, he said. While part of the AFN gathering will be devoted to missing and murdered aboriginal women, Sinclair said the grassroots don't see chiefs addressing their concerns.

One of the few things detractors and supporters of the AFN seem to agree on -- the organization needs to wean itself off federal financial support. Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said the AFN is a colonial construction set up by the federal government and fed by its dollars.

"Empowerment is not something that governments fund for indigenous people," said Nepinak, who has organized an alternative national aboriginal group called Treaty Alliance.

"A lot of our initiatives ... (are) done on the backs of people who have job titles to do something other than what we're doing right now. It's only through great resilience that we're getting through these difficult times."

Treaty Alliance participants come from all walks of life, Nepinak said. Many are not part of aboriginal politics, but the group comes together "when it needs to protect treaty rights for the future generations."

"It's growing in strength," Nepinak said.

Cameron Alexis, the AFN's Alberta regional chief, said the organization is still vital as a lobby group for First Nations interests. The question is how to keep it that way.

"There is no doubt, young people want change."

Chiefs are to discuss restructuring the organization, including how it could survive without federal financial support, he said.

"Do we move in another direction similar to what happened with our brother and sister tribes in the States, where they put in their own source revenue to support their national voice?" Alexis said. "That will be part of the discussion on restructuring and how we set a path forward."