06/13/2012 02:05 EDT | Updated 08/13/2012 05:12 EDT

Atleo faces competition from seven candidates for top First Nations post

OTTAWA - Eight people are officially in the running for the top First Nations position in Canada, and half of them are women.

The front-runner for the position of national chief of the Assembly of First Nations is widely considered to be incumbent Shawn Atleo, a B.C. leader who has held the job for the past three years.

He is being challenged by four women: Toronto-based pundit and professor Pam Palmater, Manitoba lawyer Joan Jack, western Quebec activist Ellen Gabriel, and Diane Kelly, a former grand chief from Northern Ontario.

The advocacy organization, formerly known as the National Indian Brotherhood, has never had a woman leader.

Atleo is also facing off against Terry Nelson, a Manitoba chief, as well as Dene chief Bill Erasmus, the brother of a former AFN leader, and Alberta regional chief George Stanley.

"I welcome and encourage a frank exchange of ideas on advancing our treaty and inherent rights and responsibilities. This is what First Nation citizens expect and deserve," Atleo said in a statement Wednesday that highlighted the fact that he carries support from across the country.

"We have a proud tradition of debate and most importantly consensus building to strengthen and empower the success of all of our nations."

The election is July 18 in Toronto, and the race will set the tone of First Nations politics for the next three years.

Atleo's candidacy is not without controversy.

Chiefs in Manitoba and Saskatchewan have taken issue with Atleo's approach to the Stephen Harper government, saying he has not pushed hard enough for First Nations education, funding and land rights.

Competitor Palmater has accused him repeatedly of leading First Nations down the path of assimilation, by agreeing too readily with the Harper agenda.

Indeed, Atleo made education the centrepiece of his tenure over the past three years, and developed a joint agenda with the Harper administration. That led to about $275 million in new funding in the last budget and a promise to work with the AFN to craft legislation for more First Nations control over education.

But Atleo has also opposed some of Harper's moves, most recently speaking out strongly against the government's crime bill, as well as the omnibus budget bill that will dramatically change environmental law.

In a recent interview with The Canadian Press, Atleo said the chiefs who choose the next national chief will have to decide if they want to persist with that agenda, and make sure Harper lives up to his promises to co-operate with First Nations.

"The chiefs will reflect on the challenges that are before us, because they are significant when it comes to this government," he said.

"Are we going to work together to push the government to uphold these commitments?"

Atleo has a strong base in British Columbia, which has the largest number of votes in the AFN election. He also has the backing of former national chief Ovide Mercredi.

Palmater, who has never held a chief or council position but has a high public profile, is building her base on the east coast. She says former national chief Phil Fontaine has been "very helpful" although he is not officially on her campaign team.

A major theme in the campaign will be the country's natural resources — a discussion that implicates not just First Nations, but also companies, their workforces and federal and provincial governments.

A growing number of First Nations leaders wants to see larger dividends from natural resources flow to native communities. They argue that the exploitation of natural resources is often taking place on their traditional lands without proper compensation.

Now, they say they often live in poverty and dependent on government handouts, while a bigger say in the development of natural resources could change that.

Housing, poverty, treaty rights, self-government and how to get rid of the Indian Act are also likely to dominate the campaign.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version wrongly described Bill Erasmus as the son of a former AFN leader.