Much has changed in Wasauksing First Nation in just a generation.

Physically, the Anishinaabe community on Georgian Bay has undergone a significant overhaul.

Dirt roads have become asphalt. A new recreation centre with a hockey rink sits beside the old baseball field. And today, fire hydrants line the roads and a water tower and treatment plant are near completion, thanks to new infrastructure funding from Ottawa.

When I grew up there, none of that existed. The rez is starting to look more like typical rural Canada than the stereotypical desolate images many Canadians have in their minds.

Still, a couple of things haven't changed that much when you look at First Nations communities across the country.

One is the huge disparity among these communities in the quality of life — the sub-standard drinking water and housing —with Attawapiskat in northern Ontario being the poster community last year for everything that could go wrong. 

The other, in the teeth of such disparity, is the question of leadership, a thorny one sometimes within our culture, particularly when the role of the national Assembly of First Nations is brought to bear.

In my home community, members largely attribute the housing and infrastructure upgrades to the work of our own chief and council.

And when Attawapiskat was in the media spotlight, community leaders there pointed the finger at the funding inefficiencies and Byzantine rules of the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

But in both the positive and negative examples like these, an important organization seems to abide on the periphery — the AFN, which begins its annual assembly in Toronto on Tuesday, this one to elect a new national chief, a process that comes up every three years.

If it's an event that has flown under the radar for most Canadians, that has also been the case in many First Nations communities, which is not how it should be.

If the AFN is to be a true national advocacy organization, it needs to engage people in communities more directly in order for them to understand how it can support them.

One of those ways is letting First Nations people have a direct say in deciding who should be the national chief.

The chiefs' chief

As things stand, the national chief of the AFN is essentially the choice of the chiefs representing the 633 First Nations across Canada and these chiefs can have vastly different agendas when it comes to selecting a national representative. 

This time, eight candidates are currently campaigning for that job, four of them women, a huge departure from the past.


AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo has made inroads in Stephen Harper's Ottawa. But not enough to satisfy his critics. (Chris Wattie / Reuters)

A new national chief needs to win 60 per cent of the votes cast and so these chiefs will potentially vote in several ballots until one candidate is left standing.

Last time it was a marathon of eight ballots, with Shawn Atleo, a hereditary chief from Ahousaht First Nation in coastal B.C., emerging as the winner following a 23-hour, overnight session.

Atleo is running for re-election and in the past three years he has been a prominent face on many of the social, political, and economic issues affecting First Nations, particularly on child welfare and education funding.

He has also gone out of his way to try to build a strong working relationship with Ottawa (though his critics say he has cozied up too much to the Harper government and has little to show for his pains).

He believes in economic development while maintaining culture and traditional land rights and he has helped elevate the profile of national chief on reserves and in towns and cities across Canada.

The moment to engage

Still, many people in First Nation communities are unfamiliar with the AFN or, if they have heard of it, they don't know exactly what it does.

In my community, I know the organization doesn't immediately come to mind when people talk about what's gotten better and why.

Sure, at a national level it advocates for funding from the federal government for necessities like housing and water and education, and talks the talk at least about sharing in resource development on First Nations land.

But that kind of advocacy is irrelevant to the people on the ground because the AFN doesn't really represent them on issues like these.

At the most basic level, there are two tiers that oversee reserve life: chief and council, and the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. And there's a pretty wide gap between the two of them.

Many have suggested that it is the AFN's job to bridge that gap, and if that is the case then surely more First Nations people need to understand that and have some sort of say in how that is to be done. 

Letting native people vote for the national chief would not only make the AFN more accountable to the grassroots, it would almost certainly give the organization more authority in the eyes of almost everyone.

Some chiefs do poll their community members on who they would like to see as national chief, prior to voting at the AFN general assembly. Others tend to vote in blocks along regional lines.

It's up to them, because the AFN in essence is made of the chiefs and the national chief represents them.

But in the last three years, anyway, more and more First Nations citizens have made themselves aware of the issues and what national leadership can do to deal with these problems.

At the same time, mainstream media are slowly dedicating more time and space to these stories, while independent outlets, such as the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and Windspeaker newspaper, and social media are helping to amplify First Nations voices on a national scale. 

As a result, regular people in communities are asking "Why can't I vote?" or proclaiming "If I could vote, I'd vote for..."

The desire is there, and it's up to the AFN whether it wants to engage this growing and aware population to further define our communities' roles in the development of Canada as a whole. A collective voice is almost always a stronger one.