TORONTO - Incumbent Shawn Atleo has been re-elected as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, vowing to assert his people’s rights in Ottawa and at the mines, hydro projects and oilfields that neighbour aboriginal communities across the country.
"We will take our rightful place in our respective territories," Atleo told an assembly hall packed with chiefs after three rounds of voting.
"We will stand together and put the final stake in colonialism," he said. "We will reject government’s attempt to deny or extinguish our rights."
His words were assertive, but an Atleo victory is also a sign of broad support among chiefs for working with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the joint plan that the national chief spent much of his previous term crafting.
Just over a year ago, Harper and Atleo agreed to a process that created an education task force and culminated in a summit last winter with the prime minister, his cabinet ministers and the chiefs.
There, Harper committed to passing legislation that would give First Nations more control over schooling, and to working with natives on comprehensive land claims and treaties – commitments he has yet to make good on.
Atleo’s conciliatory approach invited no end of harsh criticism during the election campaign, with his challengers accusing him of being too soft and too patient with the federal powers.
That criticism is mislaid, Atleo told reporters after his victory speech, making a point of gently sending a message to other Canadians and Ottawa that he is no push-over, and that he will reflect the will of the regional chiefs who advise him.
"Massive transformative change is required right now. I do feel we are at a moment of reckoning right now, an incredible moment of reckoning, not just for First Nations but for this country," he said, pointing to the need for improved housing and better living conditions on reserves.
"The path forward is only going to be hard or harder. It's going to be harder if governments don't come to the table and deal with First Nations in a respectful, rightful manner."
While Atleo reached out to his opponents in his victory speech, some of them and their supporters remained bitter.
"We're going to keep going," said runner-up Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer who led an anti-Atleo campaign. "This is a movement that won't stop now. Our movement is strong."
Palmater claimed 141 votes in the third ballot, while Atleo won support from 341 chiefs out of 512. Bill Erasmus, a regional chief from Northwest Territories, placed a distant third.
Atleo’s victory on Wednesday shows that the large majority of chiefs could live with his plan, and want to see it continued, chiefs from all sides conceded.
"It’s a confirmation of the work that he’s done and that our executive and our chiefs have done over the last three years. And we have three more years to follow through with plans," said Jody Wilson-Raybould, the B.C. regional chief and a staunch Atleo advocate.
Harper was quick to offer his congratulations, issuing a statement within seconds of the declaration of victory. And Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan noted the mandate Atleo has now to pursue their common agenda.
"Today’s outcome is an acknowledgment of the progress we are making toward our common goal of healthier, more self-sufficient First Nation communities."
Just because Atleo and Harper have a joint plan and a mutual respect does not mean maintaining the relationship will be easy, however.
All eight of the candidates running for national chief repeatedly and adamantly rejected Harper’s changes to environmental laws. They demanded a far larger say in the sharing of the wealth from natural resources. And Atleo made a point of reminding the AFN that the organization opposes water legislation that is working its way through Parliament.
"It’s a challenging relationship. Having said that, we have to have a relationship with the federal government," said Wilson-Raybould. "That’s our reality."
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.