06/07/2012 02:14 EDT | Updated 08/07/2012 05:12 EDT

Native leadership contender rallies Atlantic support

A Mi'kmaq woman hoping to become Canada's first female national chief of the Assembly of First Nations is seeking the support of local chiefs in Nova Scotia.

Pam Palmater — a 42-year-old lawyer, author and professor from New Brunswick — addressed a gathering of the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs on Wednesday.

She told the congress — made up of native leaders from across Atlantic Canada and the state of Maine — that native leaders have to stand up to the federal government and its policies.

"It's all about going backwards and controlling our communities again. That's why we have almost eight pieces of legislation specifically dealing with First Nations issues that are being posed unilaterally against our will," she said.

"We've never had that in our entire history. So it's very aggressive."

Palmater, who has never been a chief, is one of 12 children and spent her childhood just outside the Eel River Bar First Nation, which she now belongs to. She gained her First Nations status a year ago.

She's challenging current national chief Shawn Atleo in the leadership race and said she knows the odds are stacked against her, but it won't happen without support in the Atlantic region.

Vote happens July 18

"If you don't have the faith of your people, it's going to be hard to garner the faith of other First Nations across the country," she told CBC News on Wednesday.

"They're like family so of course, you want your family to be supportive."

Palmater has been deeply entrenched in aboriginal law, volunteer activities and activism since she went to school and earned four degrees — two of them from Dalhousie University. She's also worked for the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.

Palmater said she believes Atleo has co-operated too closely with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and has little to show for it.

"All of those organizations that have spoken out have had funding cuts. The AFN hasn't been speaking out against the federal government and they still got funding cuts," she said.

"A bully will still be a bully until you stand up."

Deborah Robinson, chief of the Acadia First Nation in southwestern Nova Scotia, said she's impressed by Palmater's message.

"There's no pussy-footing around the issue here, that she will hit and deal with the issues head on," she said.

"To me, we need somebody who's going to do that."

In addition to Atleo, Palmater will also likely be squaring off against Bill Erasmus, who has been a regional chief for Northwest Territories for almost two decades, and is a prominent AFN executive.

More than 600 chiefs will be able to vote in the July 18 contest in Toronto.