Down from a field of eight candidates in 2012, just three people—all men—are vying for the top spot at the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), the main political arm of the 634 First Nation communities scattered across Canada.
The organization, whose relevance has been called into question since the resignation last May of National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo over conflicting views on education reform, will convene this week in a special assembly in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
This time in addition to First Nation leaders, the Special Chiefs Assembly will include elders and citizens as well, though voting is still limited to elected First Nations chiefs or their proxies.
The three-day assembly runs from Tuesday December 9 through the 12th, with a theme this year of “Our People, Our Land, Our Time,” according to a statement. Priorities include engaging in dialogue on possible restructuring of the AFN, how to maintain First Nations control over their education, and the all-pervasive issue of ending violence against indigenous women and girls. Land rights and claims will also be discussed, the AFN said.
The new nationals chief’s term will last three and a half years due to “extraordinary circumstance,” the AFN said in its statement announcing the candidates last month. The spot has been filled on an interim basis by Ghislain Picard since Atleo’s resignation last May. His opponents are Perry Bellegarde, chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN), and Leon Jourdain, former Treaty 3 grand chief and previous chief of Lac La Croix First Nation in northwestern Ontario.
Each contender has vowed to keep the issue of violence against aboriginal women front and center, as well as heal what some have called a fractured organization.
“I want to become National Chief so our indigenous people can re-organize from the ground up and we can begin that journey toward becoming fully functioning autonomous Nations,” said Jourdain in a recent interview with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, which queried each candidate with questions posed by First Nation citizens. “It is critical that we reorganize and refocus our systems.”
Picard said the AFN still has a role to play, despite differences.
“The future of our national organization is too important to stay idle,” he told APTN. “Over the years, my region and its chiefs have always stood by the national organization independently of the circumstances, because they always believed that there is a purpose for a national political process, lobbying and advocating on behalf of First Nations.”
Bellegarde said his motivation stems from both his qualifications and his determination to bring First Nations up to par with mainstream Canada when it comes to qualify of life as listed by the United Nations. Canada is sixth in the world but the First Nations are 63rd, Bellegarde pointed out—and that is not what was intended in the treaties.
“First Nations people were never meant to be poor,” he told APTN. “We were always intended to share in the vast resources of our homeland, one of the richest countries in the world. Instead, we are too often perceived to be a burden on the taxpayers. This perception exists because Canada has failed to acknowledge the fact that the high quality of life enjoyed by Canadians has been, for the most part, derived from our natural resource wealth. If First Nations are to achieve self-determination, resource revenue sharing is an imperative—and our right. But while we have rights, we also have responsibilities that were passed down to us by our ancestors, the responsibilities of territorial stewardship. It is critical that we assume our role as leaders in environmental knowledge and partner with leaders in mitigating the environmental crisis before us. This is a challenge like none other.”
The election will be held from 9 a.m. to 12 noon on Wednesday December 10, with results to be reported to delegates at 1 p.m.