TORONTO - One after another, the eight candidates vying for the most powerful First Nations position in the land vowed Tuesday to find a way to increase their people’s share of Canada's wealth.
The question remains: How?
Their answer will determine, in large part, who wins Wednesday’s election for the next national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. It will also determine how First Nations relate to government, corporations and the rest of Canada in general, as the economy embraces natural resources.
"Just as our ancestors did, our people are standing up right across the country," said incumbent Shawn Atleo, citing natives demanding a larger say in Quebec’s Plan Nord, Ontario’s Ring of Fire mining development, and energy and pipeline projects throughout the West.
"And I stand firm with them."
But the chiefs who cast their ballots on Wednesday need to know what happens after that, said Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy.
While many of the B.C. chiefs seem to be ready to support Atleo, the Ontario chiefs are still looking for answers even as the six-week campaign period draws to a close, Beardy said in an interview.
“We know what our problem is; what is the solution?” he said. “We’re looking for someone who will assert our inherent jurisdiction, so we can get our fair share.”
For Atleo, increasing First Nations’ share of the wealth means reviving rights determined centuries ago in treaties, and pushing Prime Minister Stephen Harper to live up to his commitment to discuss treaty implementation.
"The Crown’s indication of a willingness to discuss implementation means we must together force this work forward in accordance with the spirit and intent of treaty," he said.
It’s a mouthful that gently reminded the chiefs that Atleo, during his first term as national chief, brought Harper to the table and obtained a commitment to at least talk about replacing the Indian Act with something that reflects First Nations’ rights to the land and its resources.
Other candidates were not so gentle.
"Let us get organized like never before," said Dene Chief Bill Erasmus. "Let’s spell out clearly how we can take care of ourselves."
Diane Kelly, a former grand chief from the northern region straddling Ontario and Manitoba, set a 150-day time limit to determine new ways to get First Nations to the negotiating table as equal partners.
In a series of presentations, a last public pitch from the candidates to sway the chiefs before Wednesday's vote, hopefuls sought to differentiate themselves and show their determination to advocate loudly for First Nations’ rights — not just in natural resources, but also in education, child welfare, and when it comes to dealing with Ottawa.
"We know the status quo is killing our people. We’re also, on top of that, having to face the most aggressive government in several generations," said Pam Palmater, a Mi'kmaq lawyer and professor at Ryerson University in Toronto.
"We have to work with this government. They’re in our house, and we have to work with them. We want to work with them. But the choice is not about working with the federal government in an abusive relationship," she said.
"We have far more power than we give ourselves credit for."
Palmater has taken Atleo head on, accusing him of cowering before the federal government and leading First Nations further down the path of assimilation.
But she and the others have a stiff challenge in defeating Atleo. He was the only candidate to show up at the assembly with an entourage of drummers, dancers and supporters, followed by a small staff of frenetic organizers.
He carries solid support in British Columbia – the region that commands the largest number of votes at the AFN election. His victory will likely depend on how many of them, or their proxies, can make it to Toronto for the vote, numerous sources said.
Atleo was introduced by former national chief Ovide Mercredi, still widely respected for his work on treaty rights. Mercredi made a point of saying Atleo was not too cosy with Harper.
“He is not close to government. He is close to our people — which matters more."
All the candidates were campaigning hard Tuesday in the corridors of the convention centre, setting up hospitality suites and chatting with as many chiefs as possible.
A candidate needs 60 per cent of the vote to claim victory. The election three years ago took eight ballots and lasted into the wee hours of the morning, but chiefs this time say there is little appetite for a lengthy battle.
The meeting will also see chiefs determine AFN policy for the coming year, with a focus on improving health care, infrastructure and oversight over the environment.
"It does set the tone between those relationships between the chiefs across the country — from coast to coast to coast — and Ottawa," said NDP aboriginal affairs critic Jean Crowder, who is attending the meeting as an observer.
"The national chief is the public figure of chiefs across this country, and this is where the work gets done around things that are really important in the First Nations community.
"I’ve heard a number of chiefs and non-First Nations people say, neither one of us is going away. We have to learn how to work together."
More than 2,000 delegates are attending the three-day meeting, including more than 300 chiefs. The next national chief is expected to be declared by the end of the day on Wednesday.
The incumbent, a hereditary chief from the Ahousaht First Nation in British Columbia; campaigning on record of making education a top priority, advocating for First Nations inclusion in Canadian economy and opening doors in Ottawa.
Mik'maq lawyer and political pundit has never been a chief and has only had her First Nations status for a year. Says her goal is to bring grassroots voice to policy discussion and make chiefs think twice about accepting status quo.
Long-time regional chief for Northwest Territories, well known among chiefs, especially since his brother George held national chief title. Has vowed to stop Northern Gateway pipeline and give First Nations a louder voice in negotiating the sharing of resource wealth.
Mohawk activist from Kanesatake in western Quebec gained national profile during Oka crisis in 1990 when she was the spokeswoman for people on her reserve. Wants a larger role for women in decision-making and wants AFN to be more receptive to grassroots concerns about housing, education and environment. <em>Ellen Gabriel leads Kanehsatake Mohawks in a march through the streets of Oka, Que. Tuesday, July 11, 2000 to mark the 10th anniversary of the start of the Oka crisis. (CP PHOTO/Ryan Remiorz)</em>
Ojibwa lawyer is former grand chief of Treaty 3 -- a large area straddling northern Ontario and Manitoba. Set a deadline of 150 days to implement plan on increasing First Nations share of resource revenues, calling on communities to stop worrying about independence and just assert it.
Terence (Terry) Nelson
A long-time activist who spent five terms as chief of the Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation. Held a high-profile meeting with Iranian officials in Ottawa earlier this year to pitch closer ties between that country and First Nations. He wants to increase profile of First Nations communities and economies globally.
George Stanley: OUT
The former RCMP officer is also Assembly of First Nations Regional Vice-Chief for Alberta. Home community of Frog Nation located in province's oil sands, has four-point plan with focus on seeing greater aboriginal involvement in natural resource development and pipeline development.
Joan Jack: OUT
Lawyer from Berens River, Man., has made her name advocating for former First Nations students of day-schools where culture was repressed. She wants to educate Canadians on First Nations history and rights, believes it's time for a woman to speak up on behalf of First Nations chiefs.
Canadian soldier Patrick Cloutier and Saskatchewan Native Brad Laroque alias "Freddy Kruger" come face to face in a tense standoff at the Kahnesatake reserve in Oka, Quebec, Saturday September 1, 1990. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Shaney Komulainen)
A warrior raises his weapon as he stands on an overturned police vehicle blocking a highway at the Kahnesetake reserve near Oka, Quebec July 11, 1990 after a police assault to remove Mohawk barriers failed. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Hanson)
A Quebec Metis places a stick with an eagle feather tied to it into the barrel of a machine gun mounted on an army armored vehicle at Oka Thursday, Aug. 23, 1990. The vehicle was one of two positioned a few metres away from the barricade causing a breakdown in negotiations. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Grimshaw)
A Mohawk Indian winds up to punch a soldier during a fight that took place on the Khanawake reserve on Montreal's south shore in 1990. The army broke up the fight by shooting into the air. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (CP PHOTO)
Two aboriginal protesters man a barricade near the entrance to Ipperwash Provincial Park, near Ipperwash Beach, Ont., on Sept. 7, 1995. (CP PHOTO)
Ken Wolf, 9, walks away from a graffiti-covered smoldering car near the entrance to the Ipperwash Provincial Park in this September 7, 1995 photo. A group of aboriginal protesters were occupying the park and nearby military base. (CP PHOTO)
Caledonian activist Gary McHale (right) is confronted by a Six Nations Protester as he attempts to lead members of Canadian Advocates for Charter Equality (CANACE) in carrying a makeshift monument to Six Nations land in Caledonia, Ont., on Sunday February 27, 2011. CANACE claim inequality in treatment for Caledonian residents from Ontario Provincial Police compared to that of the Six Nation population. They planned to plant a monument of six nation property to demand an apology from the OPP, but were turned back by protesters. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
First Nations people of the Grand River Territory stand with protest signs as they force the redirection of the Vancover 2010 Olympic Torch Relay from entering The Six Nations land Monday, December 21, 2009 near Caledonia, Ontario. The Olympic torch's journey across Canada was forced to take a detour in the face of aboriginal opposition to the Games, with an Ontario First Nation rerouting its relay amid a protest from a splinter group in the community. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley)
Six Nations protesters guard the front entrance of a housing development in Hagersville, Ont., just south of the 15-month aboriginal occupation at Caledonia on Wednesday, May 23, 2007. The protest was peaceful. (CP PHOTO/Nathan Denette)
Mohawk protestors block a road near the railway tracks near Marysville, Ont. with a bus and a bonfire Friday April 21, 2006. The natives showed their support to fellow natives in Caledonia, Ont. where they were in a stand off with police regarding land claims.(CP PHOTO/Jonathan Hayward)