The powerful group that represents Canada’s First Nations will elect a new leader next month, but with eight people vying for the job, the choice between the status quo and a radical change is bound to be a contentious one.
The issues for the more than 700,000 members of First Nations living both on and off reserves are clear: more than 100 rural and remote communities lack access to safe drinking water, housing crises abound across the country, northern communities face rising food prices, land rights and resource-revenue sharing issues are heating up on resource-rich reserves, and claims that Canada is not honouring its various treaties are rampant.
The job of national chief of the Assembly of First Nations — which represents all members of First Nations, living on and off-reserve — is to advocate on behalf of those members to press for change at the federal and provincial levels.
Jacqueline Romanow studies indigenous governance at the University of Winnipeg; she said the difference between the candidates will be in their approach to the mammoth job.
While supporters of incumbent AFN national chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo — who is seeking re-election — say he has spent the last three years fostering relationships and laying groundwork for change, his critics say his approach has been too conciliatory and even go so far as to accuse him of being too cosy with the Harper government.
Seven people — three men and four women — have thrown their hats in to replace him, demonstrating the level of dissent within the communities, said Romanow, who teaches a course on Aboriginal Politics in Canada.
“Atleo has his base of support” — mostly in his home province of British Columbia — “but there are a lot of chiefs, particularly in the Prairies, who aren’t happy with him.”
Atleo’s supporters point to his successes, such as creating a joint education panel with the federal department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development to take the pulse of on-reserve education across the country, and bringing chiefs and the government to the table at February’s Crown-First Nations Gathering.
But Romanow said there are many First Nation communities which saw the Ottawa Gathering as a mere “photo-op” and many in those communities who refused to participate in the education panel, which they said was created without consultation.
The female candidates are: Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer and professor at the University of Toronto and a longtime critic of Atleo; Diane M. Kelly, an Ojibway from Onigaming First Nation, who is also a lawyer and the first female Grand Chief of the Grand Council of Treaty #3; Mohawk activist Ellen Gabriel, from Kahnesatake in Quebec, who was a major voice during the Oka Crisis in 1990; and Joan Jack, a lawyer and band counsellor from the fly-in Aanishinaabe Ikwe community of Berens River First Nation in Manitoba.
The male candidates are two AFN regional chiefs who have worked with Atleo: George Stanley, former chief of Frog Lake First Nation and current Regional Chief of Alberta; and Dene leader Bill Erasmus, the regional chief in the North and brother of former AFN National Chief Georges Erasmus. Also running is Terrance Nelson, former Chief of Manitoba’s Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation — he’s vowed that, if he’s elected, he’ll block the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project, intended to link Alberta’s oilsands with the B.C. coast and Asian markets.
Those who accuse Atleo of being too close to the prime minister say it’s time to take off the gloves to force the government to begin treating First Nations leaders as equals, said Shari Narine, a journalist who covers the AFN for Windspeaker, the national aboriginal newspaper.
She said it’s significant that half the candidates are women because, in the history of the organization — which was called The National Indian Brotherhood until 1982 — only a handful of women have ever run for leader.
Romanow said their presence will change the way the race is run because, as women, they are closer to urgent issues on the ground.
While none of the female candidates has come out on so-called “traditionally female” causes, such as child welfare or family violence, Romanow said that approach may indicate they understand the political realities of the AFN, where the leader is chosen by 630 chiefs from across the nation.
“The majority of chiefs at the AFN are male so, if you come out with really strong pro-female agenda, then you’re going to immediately alienate a majority of the voters, who don’t seem to have an interest in changing the status quo,” said Romanow.
“It’s not unlike anywhere else in the country for women,” said Roberta Jamieson, the executive director of Indspire, a national First Nations educational charity; she ran for National Chief in 2003. “Our communities have all the ‘isms’ that the other communities have in Canada and politics anywhere is a challenge for women.”
Jamieson said talent as a negotiator and a mediator — not gender — should be the deciding factor for voters. During her own campaign, she said, she didn’t talk about the fact that she was a woman.
“I didn’t need to discount it, or tout it. I was a quality candidate for the national office and I knew that so I played to my strengths.”
While Romanow — who ran for the Green Party in the last federal election — said “the idealist” in her would love to see a woman lead the AFN, she understands the political realities on the ground don’t favour women.
Still, she’s hopeful that seeing strong female candidates will inspire more First Nations women — who are being educated in record numbers across the country — to run for office in future.
“I think the youth on reserve want change and I see these women representing those youth much better than the status quo. I think they’re going to change things — maybe not in this election, unfortunately — but I think it will happen eventually.”
Narine said that although the women all bring what she calls a “strong combination of European education and tradition” to the table, Atleo likely will get a mandate to continue his work. “After three years of knowing where he stands and what to do and how things work, now he can move on to taking action,” she said.
The election will take place in Toronto on July 18 during the AFN’s annual general meeting, which runs from July 17-19. The next National Chief, who must get 60 per cent of the vote, will serve for three years.
The Assembly of First Nations is the national organization that advocates on behalf of members of First Nations communities living on- and off-reserve.
It represents status and treaty First Nations people, but not Metis or Inuit people. The chiefs of Canada’s 630 First Nations will vote for one of the following candidates on July 18.
- Shawn A-in-chut Atleo is running for a second term as National Chief. He is the hereditary chief of Ahousaht First Nation on Vancouver Island and the AFN’s former regional chief of British Columbia (2003-2009). Atleo has a master’s degree in education and focused on reforming on-reserve education and “re-setting” the Crown-First Nations relationship during his first three-year term.
- Bill Erasmus has been the AFN’s regional chief of the Northwest Territories and the leader of his home Dene Nation since 1987. Erasmus is Chair of the Chiefs Committee on Environment and Vice-Chair to the Finance Committee and Intergovernmental and International Relations. He holds a BA in Political Science and has been a longtime advocate of Aboriginal and Treaty rights. He is the brother of former national chief Georges Erasmus.
- Ellen Gabriel shot to fame when she was chosen as the spokesperson for her home community of Kanehsatake during the 1990 Oka Crisis. Since then, the Mohawk artist has continued to advocate for human rights and the collective and individual rights of indigenous peoples. On the international stage she participated in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and was the president of the Quebec Native Women’s Association from 2004 to 2010. She has a bachelor of fine arts degree.
- Joan Jack is Aanishinaabe Ikwe, from the Berens River First Nation, 270 kilometres north of Winnipeg. She is a lawyer, skilled in negotiating on behalf of aboriginal communities in fisheries management and land claims. She told CBC journalist Wab Kinew that, if elected, she will act as a facilitator for chiefs, and that “only a woman could take on Stephen Harper.”
- Diane Kelly, an Anishinaabe lawyer from Ontario’s Onigaming First Nation, was the first woman elected Grand Chief of the Grand Council of Treaty #3 territory. She was instrumental in bringing a lawsuit against the federal government on behalf of the 28 Treaty #3 communities in Ontario and Manitoba. The lawsuit, which is trying to force the government to implement the educational aspect of their treaty, is ongoing. She said the role of the national chief should be as an advocate and a negotiator who communicates constantly with chiefs and communities.
- Terrance Nelson is a former five-term chief of Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation in southern Manitoba. He made headlines earlier this year when he took the plight of First Nations to Canada’s Iranian consulate. A self-proclaimed “radical,” Nelson has said “the Northern Gateway project is dead if I am elected national chief.” His focus is on sovereignty and land rights for First Nations.
- Pam Palmater is a Mi’kmaw lawyer and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick. Palmater teaches Indigenous law, politics and governance at Ryerson University. She told CBC’s Wab Kinew that, despite never being elected to office, she is qualified to lead the AFN because she has been advocating for First Nations her whole life. She said the AFN has strayed away from its mandate to prevent what she called “the ongoing colonization” of First Nations people in Canada.
- George Stanley is a former chief of Alberta’s Frog Lake First Nation. The former RCMP officer, with extensive experience in aboriginal justice, has been the AFN’s regional chief for Alberta since 2009. Stanley, who is Cree, has said his campaign’s focus is economic development and resource-revenue sharing. His home community owns its own oil and gas company.