Chiefs of First Nations across Canada are meeting in Toronto to choose a new leader this week, but who's running and what does the vote mean?

The Assembly of First Nations is positioned as the national representative of Canada's aboriginal population, advocating for federal funding for such basics as housing, clean water and education, and sitting at the negotiating table when it comes to tapping into the country’s natural-resource wealth.

Coastal B.C. Ahousaht First Nation hereditary chief Shawn Atleo, who has built up a strong national profile since taking the reins at the AFN in 2009, is widely seen as the candidate to beat.

But his incumbent profile also serves as a lightning rod for criticism from those who suggest he has become too cozy with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government.

In fact, when it initially appeared he would be running uncontested, seven others declared their candidacy for the vote at the AFN's annual General Assembly in downtown Toronto Wednesday.

Unity vs. Sell-out

All the contenders, it seems, have set their sights on Atleo, echoing the criticisms that have dogged his term.

Chief among them: Rather than chart a bold new course in relations with Ottawa, they say Atleo has been too accommodating with the federal government.

On the subject of Atleo's push to give First Nations control over their own education, for example, they say the joint AFN-government task force rehashed old ground and wound up offering minimum funding, rather than transformation. The same type of “sell-out” criticism was levelled after Atleo persuaded Prime Minister Harper to attend a Crown-First Nations summit spurred by the spotlight on living conditions in the northern Ontario Attawapiskat reserve.

The community’s deplorable living conditions grabbed headlines nationwide. But the biggest outrage was spurred by revelations agreements with a nearby diamond mine had seen $325 million flow into the community of 1,800 over a period of six years. That wealth, it became clear, had not been distributed evenly.

Atleo stands by his record, however, answering the charges by reminding detractors his mandate "was to create the space to open the door" for a dialogue between chiefs and the government, not make decisions on their behalf.

In that light, Atleo has positioned himself as the unity candidate.

His seven challengers believe they can do better, though. They include several veterans of native politics: Chief of the Dene Nation Bill Erasmus, former five-time Roseau River First Nation chief Terrance Nelson and AFN Alberta regional chief George Stanley.

And for the first time, four women will be on the ballot too: New Brunswick Mi’kmaq lawyer and Ryerson professor Pam Palmater, Manitoba lawyer Joan Jack, Kanehsatake Mohawk advocate Ellen Gabriel and the former grand chief of Ontario's Grand Council of Treaty #3 Diane Kelly.

Crisis mode

During a televised leadership debate last week, Palmater encapsulated a view apparently shared by all of Atleo's opponents.

"The status-quo is killing our people," she said in the debate broadcast on the Aboriginal People's Television Network.

"Communities across the country are in crisis mode and we are not calling it a crisis at the AFN,” she said, taking aim at the AFN's "policy of appeasement."

Instead, Palmater said she would take the AFN back to its founding principles.

"We have to get back to those advocacy roots and those anti-colonisation roots. And really bring forward a strong agenda that's directed by the chiefs," she said, not the AFN leader.

Terry Nelson, who garnered 10 per cent of the vote in his 2009 bid to lead the AFN, also said he would free the organization of its dependence on Ottawa.

It's "totally dependent" now, he said, calling for wholesale change in its dealings with the federal government.

"It's basically pushing the policies of Canada and the immigrant government," he said. "And if we can get the chiefs together in a four day meeting on an action plan they'll never ever have to fear Stephen Harper."

Bill Erasmus, who rose to prominence during the 1990 Oka crisis in Quebec and is now widely seen as Atleo’s biggest challenger, said he would focus the AFN on ensuring First Nations' treaty rights are respected.

"Our people know what they want ... and AFN's job is to help ensure that those agreements and treaties are enacted," he said, positioning himself as the candidate to give the AFN a more forceful voice in national politics.

"The lands, the resources, we are the owners of them. Everywhere we look, that belongs to us. But the myth out there is that nothing belongs to us. So that has to be clarified and that can be done at a national level."


Erasmus' view has gained currency in the debate leading to the passage of the federal omnibus budget bill, with its promise to speed up environmental assessments.

Many have expressed concern First Nations' land and treaty rights could be threatened by the expected push to quickly develop the oilsands and build pipelines, for example, and say that is just one example of the political crossroads Canada's First Nations must now confront.

But for his part, Atleo stands behind the "strength through unity" approach he's taken over the last three years.

"This means treaty nations leading treaty implementation, this means achieving the implementation of our inherent title and rights, and we can do this by working together. That's the original vision of the AFN: nations coming together in strength."

The AFN's three-day, 33rd Annual General Assembly gets underway with an all candidates forum on Tuesday. The leadership vote is slated for Wednesday, with the first results expected that afternoon.

Chiefs representing more than 600 First Nations across Canada are eligible to cast ballots in a one-chief, one-vote system. The winning candidate needs to garner at least 60 per cent of the vote, meaning it could take several ballots to decide.

In 2009, it took 23 hours and eight ballots for Atleo to win.