CALGARY, Alberta – After 22 hours of voting and eight ballots, 41-year-old Ahousaht Hereditary Chief Shawn ‘A-in-chut’ Atleo has been named National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
Voting for Canada’s top aboriginal leader began July 22 at 9 a.m., and wasn’t resolved until the following morning.
“This was a very long, hard-fought election,” said Atleo, “but it’s nowhere near as difficult as the challenges facing many of our people.”
Atleo supporters were buoyed after the first ballot with Shawn taking 43 percent of the vote, and his main rival far behind with 29 percent. But the three other contenders (John Beaucage, Terry Nelson and Bill Wilson) dropped out of the leadership race, announcing their support for Saskatchewan’s Perry Bellgarde. From that point on the election became an unprecedented tight race.
For most of the following six ballots, Atleo only lead Bellgarde by the slimmest of margins, from an even tie to a 12 vote lead. Bellgarde won only the fourth ballot with a three-vote margin out of more than 500 registered chiefs and voting delegates.
The AFN Constitution demands a 60 percent approval rating from registered voters made up of chiefs from Canada’s 633 aboriginal nations.
Atleo supporters were angry after Bellgarde promised to drop out if he lost the third ballot – which he did – but only by one vote. As the night wore on, accusations of dishonesty began to take hold, going into the eighth ballot.
“Perry Bellgarde has twice stated publicly that he would concede if he lost a vote, but he hasn’t followed through,” said Atleo’s campaign co-chair Doug Kelly (Sto:lo). “The danger of this election continuing is many people are becoming upset with Perry not conceding, and that is creating some divisions.”
Meanwhile, Atleo was meeting with the Manitoba chiefs, trying to carve off some of Bellgarde’s prairie region block vote. Bellgarde walked nervously past the meeting room, knowing full-well what was going on behind closed doors. He tried to enter the meeting, but was turned away.
When the results of the eighth ballot were announced at 7:30 a.m., Atleo’s work had paid off; taking a 76 vote lead over Bellgarde, but still a few votes short of the required 60 percent.
When AFN Electoral Officer Lorretta Pete-Lambert announced that a ninth ballot would be needed, hundreds of delegates inside the Calgary Telus Convention Centre started shouting “No!” and chanting “Do the right thing.”
After less than one minute, Bellgarde began making his way through the dozens of reporters towards Atleo to concede defeat.
“While many of my supporters want me to carry on towards the 60 percent goal, I believe the chiefs have spoken and they have chosen my friend A-in-chut,” Bellgarde said in his concession speech. “We now must unite with Shawn for the future of our nations and our children’s children.”
After taking the oath of office, Atleo reached out to the chiefs that supported Bellgarde and the other candidates. “We must pull together in unity to overcome the many divisions that we did not create. There is much work to do, and this is our time to take our rightful place in this country; it’s our time.”
More than 100 Ahousaht community members, who had traveled in vans and busses to Calgary, jammed the main stage, singing songs of victory and celebration. Close to 50 Nuu-chah-nulth leaders joined the performance, singing the always powerful Nuu-chah-nulth song.
“This has been an incredibly emotional two days,” said Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council President Cliff Atleo Sr. “To have one of our own elected to the top aboriginal position in the country is just an incredible feeling of pride. Vancouver Island First Nations have never had a strong connection with happenings in Ottawa and the people who make decisions over us, but that will all change now I think.”
Exhausted after 22 hours of intense election politics, Atleo had no time to rest, having to chair the remainder of the three-day meeting before facing hundreds of congratulatory hugs and handshakes from the more than 800 leaders and community members at the 30th Annual AFN National Gathering.
A-in-chut served three terms as the AFN regional chief in British Columbia, working closely with National Chief Phil Fontaine, who decided not to run.
“The decisions we make here are not just about us – it’s about Canada, and making life better for all our people and all Canadians,” Fontaine said. “It’s never about one person. It’s never about the national chief. It’s always about our people.”
Atleo now begins a three-year term and has promised to make education, economies and the environment some of his priorities.