Grassroots "hearts" may be with AFN women candidates, but cold math shows Atleo may triumph

Andrea Michael says she’s paying close attention to the race for Assembly of First Nations national chief for the first time because this year’s field includes four female candidates who could make history by breaking the traditionally male hold on the most high profile position in First Nations politics.

By Jorge Barrera
APTN National New

Andrea Michael says she’s paying close attention to the race for Assembly of First Nations national chief for the first time ever because this year’s field includes four female candidates who could make history by breaking the traditionally male hold on the highest profile position in First Nations politics.

Michael, 36, says it’s time for the AFN to be led by a woman.

“This is the first time I have ever had this much interest or paid this much attention to an election, specifically because of the women candidates, the female voices,” said Michael, who lives in Cut Knife, Sask., and teaches kindergarten on the Poundmaker Cree Nation. “It is time. Are the old boys ready?”

The ‘old boys’ aren’t ready yet, according to some who watch First Nations politics closely.

“The chiefs are basically conservative. They are going to go with the devil they know than the ones they don’t know,” said Russ Diabo, a policy analyst who hails from Kahnawake, Que., and has been involved and watched AFN politics for 30 years.

“If we elect a woman, it will be a watershed moment,” said Doug Cuthand, a prominent columnist who writes on First Nations issues in Saskatchewan. “At the grassroots level, they’ll vote in a woman chief, but it’s the old fogies at the national level that have to catch up….Quite frankly, the chiefs out here are very conservative, they are not going to vote for a woman, they’ll vote for a guy first.”

Incumbent national chief Shawn Atleo is the assumed front-runner in the race, but he’s facing one of the largest fields in the history of AFN elections.

The AFN is an organization created to champion First Nation issues at the national level.

Atleo is facing challenges from two AFN vice-chiefs including George Stanley, from the Cree First Nation of Frog Lake in Alberta, and Bill Erasmus, the Dene Nation chief from the Northwest Territories. Former Ojibway Manitoba chief Terry Nelson, who garnered 10 per cent of the vote in the previous election which Atleo won, is also in the running.

It’s the four women in the race, including three lawyers, however, that is setting this race apart.

Vying for the national chief’s position are: Ellen Gabriel, a Mohawk from Kanesatake who rose to prominence as a spokesperson during the Oka crisis, Joan Jack, an Ojibway lawyer from the Berens River First Nation, 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.

These women candidates have drawn a high level of interest from grassroots First Nations people who have taken to Twitter and Facebook to voice their hope the July 18 election in Toronto makes history.

“Women candidates for chief have won the hearts of the people already, pay attention gentlemen,” tweeted Barbara Low.

“Women are doers! It’s time!” wrote Brenda Morrison on APTN‘s Facebook page.

Women were traditionally the political leaders among the Indigenous nations in Canada before colonization, said Lois Frank, 56, from the Blood Tribe in Alberta.

Their place, however, was dislodged through the Indian Act, which erased a woman’s Indian status if she married a non-status man. It wasn’t until 1985, through Bill C-31 that women were able to retain their status. In 2011, as a result of a court ruling, the government passed Bill C-3 which allowed those women to pass on their status to grandchildren.

“Women had a lot of power, but, because of the Indian Act, women became non-persons unless indentified with a father or husband,” said Frank, a former Calgary female entrepreneur of the year who is facing court date next Wednesday on charges stemming from a blockade against trucks on her reserve in 2011 which were on route to a fracking operation. “It took courageous women to change that. Native women are not respected as they should be.”

While the hearts and hopes of many grassroots people may be with the women candidates in this year’s race, the AFN election’s cold math and rules may be too much for any of them to overcome.

Band chiefs are the only ones who can choose a national chief who needs at least 60 per cent of the vote to win. There are only about 630 available votes and with regional politics in play it’s extremely difficult for an outsider to upend the status quo and take the election.

As it stands, it appears Atleo has solid support in British Columbia which holds the largest number of votes with about 198. And, according to sources, Atleo has broad support in Ontario, which carries the second largest block of potential votes with about 133.

Even with the strong, as one Alberta chief put it, “anybody-but-Atleo” sentiment among many chiefs in the prairies, it may not be enough to knock him off.

“(Atleo) has a strong B.C. base…I can’t see too many bolting,” said Diabo. “He’ll have 200 to 300 votes out of the gate.”

While poverty rates continue to rise and infrastructure on reserves continues to crumble across the country, Diabo said most of the chiefs are not willing to gamble by choosing an AFN leader who could cause trouble with Ottawa.

“Everyone is afraid they’ll lose their funding. That is what’s keeping everyone there,” said Diabo. “The dependency on the federal fiscal transfers has everybody trapped.”

According to Cuthand, however, the chiefs are in danger of losing all their legitimacy unless they begin to reflect the will of their grassroots instead of their self interest to keep funds flowing.

“The chiefs are going to have to get relevant or be irrelevant,” said Cuthand. “If they try to protect their projects, they are going to find that they are going to be taken over by events.”

For Colby Tootoosis, 30, a band councillor for the Poundmaker Cree Nation and former co-chair of the AFN youth council, it’s time for chiefs to stop fearing the word “radical” because the stakes are too high to hope change will come sometime down the road.

“We need to pick up the pace. I think radical isn’t a bad thing in terms of what is really at stake and how close we are to becoming strangers in our own lands,” said Tootoosis. “Our people don’t need politicians; we need leaders who are willing to speak the truth.”

Whoever becomes the next AFN national chief, Frank hopes they’ll move the organization closer to the people.

“The AFN really has to change their image. They are seen as disconnected from the people,” she said.

Michael echoes the sentiment.

“The First Nation-Crown gathering was such a long way from the dirt roads back home on the rez,” said Michael, who is from Beardy’s and Okemasis First Nation in Saskatchewan. “There is so much frustration out there and people have had it.”

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Online Producer / Ottawa

Before moving to become the APTN News social media producer, Mark was the executive producer for the news in eastern Canada. Before starting with APTN in 2009, Mark worked at CBC Radio and Television in Newfoundland and Labrador and Ottawa.