All three candidates for the top job at the Assembly of First Nations are calling for more inclusion of grassroots voices at the national organization that has been struggling to maintain its relevance in recent months. 

On Wednesday, Perry Bellegarde, Leon Jourdain and Ghislain Picard were officially announced as candidates for the upcoming election for National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, which takes place December 10th in Winnipeg. 

The three candidates in the race are longtime politicians. Ghislain Picard is the AFN regional chief for First Nations in Quebec and Labrador and took over the role of National Chief after Atleo's departure in May. Perry Bellegarde is currently the chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and Leon Jourdaine is a former Treaty #3 grand chief and chief of the Lac La Croix First Nation in northwestern Ontario. 

The national chief position was left vacant after the abrupt resignation of former National Chief Shawn Atleo in May.

His resignation came amid criticism from chiefs who accused Atleo of growing too close to the government after he supported the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act.  His departure signalled deep divides among chiefs and since then, the future of the national organization has been called into question. 

Grassroots want 'radical change'

There were eight candidates In the last election for AFN national chief in 2012.  

Hayden King is the Director of the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University. He says he's not surprised that only three candidates threw their hat into the ring this time.

"The AFN represents the old school politics, the band council politics and I think native people today are looking for something much, much different that the AFN might not be able to provide."

Hayden King

Hayden King is the director of the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University. He says the Assembly of First Nations is declining in influence. (Hayden King)

King says that the Idle No More movement is an example of grassroots people's frustration over what they see as a lack of progress made by organizations like the AFN. 

"They're looking for radical change, transformational change and the AFN has sought incremental change," said King.  

"It has this rights-based agenda where we can chip away at the challenges to make progress but I think people are tired of that approach and we're not really waiting any longer and we're going to make change ourselves." 

Jourdaine says that if he's elected national chief, he would restructure the organization to include the grassroots. 

"The people on the ground have a birthright to choose who their leader should be at the national level. How can you talk about unity if you're denying people their right to vote?"

Both Bellegarde and Picard say the the AFN is a chief's organization but they support more input from grassroots. 

"There is nothing preventing the AFN to move forward on organizing dialogue sessions across the country, better use of social media so there is interaction between the leadership, the AFN and our peoples in our nations."

Bellegarde says he agrees change needs to happen but is calling for unity. 

"The AFN has to be relevant. People need to see that it's still relevant. We need to be united, not to play into the government's hand of divide and conquer. We don't need to work against each other."

Violence against women, education top priorities

The AFN has been pushing for a national inquiry into the over 1,200 cases of missing and murdered indigenous women. Bellegarde says it's one of the biggest travesties in Canada.

"With a national inquiry, it will elevate the issues so people really become educated and aware of the issue, that leads to understanding and that will lead to action."

Picard says that if the government doesn't move to support an inquiry, the AFN could move ahead on its own.

"We always have the option, with the proper support from leadership to move forward on our own commission of inquiry, if that's what it takes."

Jourdaine says the role that poverty plays in this issue cannot be ignored.

"A public inquiry is needed yes but we have to go beyond that, we have to look at what is causing our women, our young girls to put themselves in danger, getting involved with drugs and self-destructive behaviour.

First Nations education

All three candidates for national chief say improving First Nations education will be a top priority if elected. (CBC)

All three candidates also addressed the need to improve education for First Nation children

"The investment is needed now, it was needed yesterday." said Picard. "We've got to make sure that all of the conditions are there in order for us to say there is real First Nation control of education and those conditions are just not there yet."

​Jourdaine argued that the now shelved First Nation Control of First Nation Education Act wouldn't have provided adequate funding. 

"As it was, I can't support it because it was doomed for failure." 

"One of the biggest ways out of poverty is a good education," Bellegarde pointed out.  "We know the discrepancies in funding levels. There is a huge financial discrepancy. We want to make sure the education of our children is done in a proper way under First Nations control because we love our children too."

There are 639 First Nation communities in Canada that are recognized as members of the Assembly of First Nations. However, only elected First Nation chiefs or their proxies are eligible to vote for AFN National Chief.

with files from Karen Pauls