(Former AFN natioal chief Matthew Coon Come (left) walks beside AFN national chief candidate Pam Palmater during the grand entry Tuesday. Coon Come, Grand Chief of the Cree, is backing Palmater in her bid. APTN/Photo)
By Tim Fontaine and Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
TORONTO–With less than 24 hours until chiefs begin electing a new leader of the Assembly of First Nations, it’s make-or-break time for the eight candidates.
For many chiefs in attendance, this will be their first opportunity to meet one-on-one with those vying for the position of national chief.
As of Tuesday, 314 chiefs and proxies had registered for the Toronto AFN gathering, but officials said they expected more to register by tomorrow, the day of the vote. A total of 1400 people had registered to attend the gathering by Tuesday morning.
There are about 634 chiefs who are eligible to vote for the national chief. The winning candidate needs to garner at least 60 per cent of the vote.
Eight candidates are in the race for national chief.
Four women are vying for the job, including Ellen Gabriel, a Mohawk from Kanesatake, who rose to prominence during the Oka crisis, Joan Jack, an Ojibway lawyer from the Berens River First Nation and former Treaty 3 grand chief Diane Kelly, a lawyer from Ojibways of Onigaming First Nation, and Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaq lawyer and professor at Ryerson University.
The field of candidates also includes incumbent National Chief Shawn Atleo, George Stanley, Alberta AFN regional chief from the Cree First Nation of Frog Lake, Bill Erasmus, Dene Nation chief from the Northwest Territories and Terrance Nelson, the five-time former chief of Roseau River.
Much of this politicking takes place in caucus rooms. Over the next day and during the voting process, chiefs from each region will meet in these private rooms to discuss amongst themselves where each candidate stands.
“Usually they’ll have an idea on who they want to vote for on the first ballot. And then after that what happens is that the candidates will go around to the various caucus rooms and find out if they can pinpoint specific items that they need to work on to gain support for that caucus. Because after the first ballot everything can change very quickly.” says John Beaucage, who ran unsuccessfully for national chief in 2009.
Bob Watts,chief of staff to former AFN national chief Phil Fontaine, said each of the camps would also spend Tuesday working furiously to shore up their existing support and try to peel support away from the other candidates.
“Right now it’s about shoring up votes, making sure supporters are still supporters and finding ways of networking out in the other camps and seeing where there is help and where there is no help,” he said. “There is a lot of work in the backrooms.”
Perhaps the most formal and visible election event is the all-candidates forum. Traditionally held the night before voting begins, candidates have the opportunity to address the chiefs in attendance in a strictly timed and structured format.
Beaucage says this will be crucial for incumbent Atleo.
“They’re looking at the past record for National Chief Atleo. They’re seeing what was promised three years ago and they’re seeing how that promise was delivered and they’re trying to determine if Chief Atleo deserves another term.”
Watts said speech preparation plays a big part of what is happening in the backrooms of each camp.
“(Atleo) has probably gone over his speech this afternoon a hundred times to make sure that he is going to hit everything they expect of him. This is going on in all the camps,” said Watts. “This is big politics and people take it really seriously.”
While it might be easy to assume that the level of applause is an indication of support, that’s not always the case. At the 2009 AFN election in Calgary, Nelson received the most applause at the all-candidates forum, yet was eliminated in the first round of voting.
The speeches will be playing a decisive role in this year’s outcome as many chiefs have still to make up their minds as to who they will support. It appears Atleo has a lock on a large part if not all the B.C. votes making Ontario, which has the second largest block of chief, as a key battleground. Many Ontario chiefs say they are waiting to see how the speeches unfold before deciding where to turn.
Talk among chiefs and observers indicate that if Atleo emerges from the first ballot in a show of strength, his opposition will melt away. It seems there is little appetite for the marathon voting sessions from 2009.
Watts said this year’s election is probably one of the most important in recent memory.
“There is a lot at stake. There is probably more at stake in this election than in any other election,” said Watts. “Just with the way things are going with free prior and informed consent, the focus on resource development, the alternative that the government seems to be presenting that, ‘we’ll go ahead and do stuff and worry about it later,’ versus First Nations saying we want processes, we want to be involved, we want high standards in terms of how things are being done. So these are contrasting visions of the country of how development will happen.”
And the high stakes have brought out some of the big hitters in First Nations politics.
Former AFN national chief Matthew Coon Come, who is Grand Chief of the Cree, has publicly backed Palmater’s candidacy. He walked next to her as they entered during the grand procession to open the AFN gathering amid drums and singing.
Coon Come, however, refused to comment Tuesday on why he backed Palmater.
Another former national chief Ovide Mercredi, who is now a band councillor for Misipawistik Cree Nation in Manitoba, has thrown his considerable influence behind Atleo.
“(Atleo) is the only guy that can lead,” said Mercredi, as he walked into the Toronto Metro Convention Centre where the AFN vote will be held.
This year’s election has also seen a level of criticism directed at the incumbent not usually seen in AFN contests.
Palmater has strongly rebuked the work of the AFN and Atleo, accusing the incumbent national chief of being too close to the Conservative government and enabling the assimilation of First Nations people.
While her blunt talk has earned her a large following on social media, some chiefs believe that she has crossed the line.
Snuneymuxw Chief Doug White, whose community is on Vancouver Island, said the rhetoric employed by Palmater has been “destructive” and done little to advance the cause of First Nations people.
“It is a destructive form of politics that destroys the dignity…of the AFN,” said White, who is supporting Atleo. “Throwing rocks doesn’t serve our people.”
White also said he was “deeply disturbed” by Nelson and his decision to use a planned trip to Iran as part of his campaign.
“It attacks the dignity of the AFN for a candidate to be sidling up to such a repressive regime,” said White. “No social movement in history has ever advanced by peddling ignorance and allying with oppressors.”
Rumours have also circulated that some chiefs from the prairie regions may consider leaving the AFN if Atleo again wins the post.
The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations has openly criticized Atleo for ignoring the direction of chiefs who want the AFN to take a stronger position on enforcing treaty rights.
Onion Lake Cree Nation Chief Wallace Fox has publicly accused Atleo of pushing the assimilation policies of the Conservative government. Fox nominated Atleo for national chief in 2009.
FSIN vice-chief Morley Watson, however, dispelled talk of treaty chiefs walking away from the AFN if Atleo wins.
“Whoever (the chiefs) decide to back, we will work with them,” said Watson.