The heads of 633 First Nations will vote for the position of national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) on July 18. In a race with eight candidates vying for the top position, an unprecedented half of those are women.
At the center of the election is incumbent national chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, who hopes to extend his three-year term.
“It’s a time to reflect on the last three years, and to build on the experience,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network. “We’re in a moment of reckoning in this country, and for Indigenous Peoples more broadly on a global scale. It’s time to take our rightful place. We’re much stronger when we work together.”
Atleo, from British Columbia’s Ahousaht First Nation, said his focus will include strengthening aboriginal education, working to eliminate violence against women and children, and supporting environmental defense.
But while his rivals’ campaigns have remained steadfastly positive, some hint at discontent with what they see as Atleo’s conciliatory and moderate tone toward Canada.
“In the last couple years, [the AFN] hasn’t been as strong an advocate as [it has] been historically,” rival Pam Palmater told ICTMN. “One of my primary focuses has been on the lived realities of our people. How do we address the crises that we’re facing?”
Palmater, of Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick, is head of Ryerson University’s Indigenous Governance program in Toronto and has been outspoken on the issue of First Nation self-determination. Another candidate pushing for such rights is Ellen Gabriel, renowned as Kanehsatà:ke’s spokeswoman during its 1990 standoff near Oka, Quebec.
“Our self-determination rights were here long before Europeans arrived on these shores,” Gabriel told ICTMN. “If we continue to say we need their permission to do things, we’re not going to get anywhere. We can’t do it using the Indian Act, or solely based on what the government of Canada allows us to do.… The solutions are not in the little boxes we’ve been forced into.”
Atleo faces some of his fiercest competition from two candidates within the AFN itself. One is Bill Erasmus, Dene Nation Chief, who has been AFN’s Northwest Territories regional chief since 1994. His campaign did not return an interview request, but he told the Hill Times, “I think you can expect someone that is not afraid to speak out, someone that will challenge where the Canadian government is trying to take the public.… There’s a different tactic that needs to take place.”
AFN’s Alberta regional chief, George Stanley of Frog Lake First Nation, is running on a platform to “protect what’s left for us for the next generation,” he said.
“It’s high time we used our inherent rights, and to exercise and use them,” he added. “We’re hoping to change the leadership. I’m very adamant and concerned in many ways that we won’t have two feet to stand on with our rights.”
Terrance Nelson, former chief of Manitoba’s Roseau River First Nation, is running on a self-described “radical” platform based on ending financial dependency on Canada.
“One of my goals is to provide an economic arm for AFN,” he said. “That’s critically important. That’s what I call radical change. If you’re going to sit around and wait for the white man to come rescue you, then you’re going to wait a hell of a long time.”
Also from Manitoba, Berens River First Nation’s Joan Jack said she is running to “effect positive social change for the good of our entire country,” promising to work closely with AFN’s executive committee to ensure First Nations diversity is represented.
From Ontario, Treaty 3’s first female Grand Chief is also in the running. She supports “empowering decision making through traditional governance” and “forging strong alliances,” according to Dianne Kelly of Onigaming First Nation on the AFN website.