07/25/2018 18:12 EDT | Updated 07/26/2018 11:03 EDT

Carolyn Bennett's Presence At AFN Chief Election Vote Blasted By 4 Candidates

Incumbent Perry Bellegarde has been accused of being too cosy with Ottawa.

VANCOUVER — Four candidates in the race for national chief of the Assembly of First Nations are claiming election interference by the federal government because of the presence of a cabinet minister ahead of the vote.

Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett was at the annual general assembly today in Vancouver where voting is taking place.

After the first round of voting put incumbent candidate Perry Bellegarde in the lead, his four challengers stood together beside a stage to discuss their concerns.

Sheila North of Manitoba said Bennett's presence represents a "disgusting display of interference" and a direct attack by the Liberal government on the assembly, while Miles Richardson of B.C. said the federal government has divided First Nations long enough.

Russ Diabo of Quebec called for the minister to be sanctioned.

In a statement, the federal department says "in no way" did the minister interfere in the election process.

It says Bennett was invited by Chief Marlene Poitras of Alberta to listen to her regional concerns and at no point was the election for national chiefs discussed.

Katherine Whitecloud of Manitoba was eliminated after the first round of voting.

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau receives a jacket from National Chief Perry Bellegarde during the Assembly of First Nations, Special Chiefs Assembly in Gatineau, Quebec on May 2, 2018.

A candidate must win 60 per cent of the votes to be elected leader. A total of 538 chiefs cast ballots in the first round of voting, but none of the candidates reached the threshold of 323 votes.

Bellegarde won 286 votes, followed by North, with 106 votes.

Richardson received 87 votes, while 40 votes were cast for Diabo and 19 for Whitecloud.

Bellegarde, who is from the Little Black Bear First Nation in Treaty 4 territory in Saskatchewan, says his close relationship with the federal government has secured billions of dollars in new funding for Indigenous issues over the last three budgets, although he has been criticized by other candidates for being too cosy with the government.