Chiefs from more than 600 First Nations choose a new leader from among three candidates in Winnipeg today to replace former national chief Shawn Atleo

Perry Bellegarde, chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, is chasing the top job, along with Ghislain Picard, regional chief for Quebec and Labrador. Picard became interim national chief following Atleo's resignation. 

Leon Jourdaine, chief of the Lac La Croix First Nation in northwestern Ontario, is also running.

But questions about the AFN's role continue to surface, both from within and outside the organization. 

Sam McKay, who works with the Idle No More movement, attended the first day of the AFN meeting Tuesday with a message for the chiefs: the AFN is elitist. 

"The grassroots feel like they have no voice. They're not being listened to," he said. "We're trying to get our concerns across to the candidates and that they may take on those concerns of the grassroots people.

sam mackay idle no more afn

Sam McKay, who works with the group Defenders of the Land, said the AFN has not listened to the grass roots members of the aboriginal community. (CBC)

"I know it's a major problem for elected officials to be concerned with the every day concerns of the grassroots people they represent."

Winnipeg lawyer Joan Jack, originally from Berens River, Manitoba, ran for national chief last time.

But not this time. 

"I don't think it's a race that can be won by a woman," she said. "There's too much sexism and chauvinism in our community."

In spite of that, Jack said there is still a role for the AFN.

"The federal government, the provincial governments are always going to look and say, "Who's your speaker? Who's in charge?" she said, saying the AFN does have a job to speak for the aboriginal community and she's not ready to see it dismantled yet. 

"I think it's a little early. What would we replace it with? It's like throwing the Indian Act out. Great, easy to say that, but I don't see any legislation coming to replace the Indian Act so that's just foolishness,"  she said. 

But others, including some chiefs, disagree. 

Sara Mainville, chief of the Couchiching First Nation in Ontario, didn't even bother to attend the election, even though she could vote. 

"One of the things we have to do really is consider what role the AFN has if any," said Mainville. "I don't disrespect people trying to make change at that level, at the AFN. I don't disrespect that. I just don't want to spend any energy on something I'm skeptical is going to work," she said. 

New leader will likely be caught between Ottawa, grassroots

Hayden King

Hayden King of the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University in Toronto, said the new national chief of the AFN will likely be caught in between Ottawa and grassroots members of the aboriginal community who are demanding a voice. (CBC)

Hayden King, who heads the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University in Toronto, said he hopes the new leader will start listening to the grassroots, but admits he will be caught in a difficult position between them and Ottawa.

"These are not men that are completely disconnected from communities," he said. "They're leaders in communities.

"They know the bitterness and anger that exists but it's really difficult, I think, for them to make change when they're dealing with a partner in the federal government that really just wants to maintain the status quo."

Voting for the national chief starts at 9 a.m. CST Wednesday. 

Results of the first ballot should be available by about 1 p.m. 

The winning candidate needs the support of 60 per cent of the registered voters.