Wednesday's election of a national chief for the Assembly of First Nations comes at a critical time for the AFN.

The vote in Winnipeg involves 639 chiefs deciding who will speak for them, and follows the sudden resignation of former national chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo in May.

The three candidates this time are Perry Bellegarde, chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations; Leon Jourdain, chief of Lac La Croix First Nation in northwestern Ontario; and Ghislain Picard, AFN regional chief for First Nations in Quebec and Labrador.

The winner will be the public face of the AFN and represent the primary means by which First Nations communicate and negotiate with the federal government.

First Nation critics are calling for a massive overhaul of the AFN, which they see as weak, overly dependent on Ottawa and delivering incremental change rather than dealing with systemic, large-scale issues.

Many say that the AFN does not represent grassroots aboriginal people and particularly take issue with the fact that only chiefs are able to vote for the national chief.

It may well be that the AFN has outlived its usefulness as the national representative of First Nations.

Or, this election of a new national chief could be the start of a fresh relationship between First Nations and the federal government. The next few days and the visions of those who wish to lead the assembly will indicate in which direction the AFN is heading.

Here are five issues to watch for in Wednesday's election:

1. The role of the grassroots in the AFN

Every national chief candidate knows they must involve people at the grassroots level in the day-to day operations of the AFN. The challenge is in articulating how this can be done.

Perry Bellegarde

Candidate Perry Bellegarde is chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. (CBC)

One way is for candidates to bridge national interests with the issues most directly effecting communities.

Candidates may find support when addressing the issues of urban poverty, employment and housing on reserves, as well as that of the murdered and missing indigenous women.

Calls for a national inquiry on the issue of violence against indigenous women is really gaining momentum among First Nations people and will be a prime test for any candidate.

A much more contentious — but politically feasible issue — is how to deal with the economic agenda of the federal government. Reconciling an oil and gas industry, hungry for First Nations-held resources, with concerns over the environment is of paramount importance for many communities.

Candidates who can provide a vision for connecting these grassroots concerns with a style of leadership will likely gain support quickly.

2. The structure of the AFN

No AFN leader has ever implemented a vision for how the organization can become an economically and politically autonomous body, less dependent on federal funding, while at the same time representing the interests of all First Nations peoples.

'A candidate that provides a succinct plan for re-building the organization, literally from the grassroots up, will find many friendly ears.'

When the national chief disagrees with the federal government, funding is often cut, programs are compromised, and the aspirations of the membership are compromised.

Add the fact that only chiefs choose the national chief and the result is usually apathy in most First Nations communities about the AFN's ability to drive change.

Without a massive overhaul in the way the AFN is funded, selects its leadership and relates to the federal government, the organization will always face serious criticism.

A candidate that provides a succinct plan for rebuilding the organization, literally from the grassroots up, will find many friendly ears.

3. The 'brand' of the AFN

The public perception of the AFN is that it is a fractured and cumbersome organization. As a result, people expect little from its leader, resolutions are generally disregarded, and the media presents chiefs disagreeing as being detrimental to the organization.

Leon Jourdain, chief of Lac La Croix First Nation

Leon Jourdain is chief of Lac La Croix First Nation in northwestern Ontario. (CBC)

However, the AFN is not a government. It is an organization similar to the UN — a body forged through constant negotiation, disagreement and ongoing relationships.

This type of organization is generally seen as a strength at the international level, but not so for First Nations.

Leadership candidates must change the way the AFN is perceived. While Bellegarde, Jourdain, and Picard are all old-guard politicians, they have an opportunity to put a fresh coat of paint on an old, leaky boat.

4. The regionality of the AFN

A little known fact to outsiders of AFN politics is the role of provincial and regional voting blocs.

The largest of this is in British Columbia, which represents nearly one-third of First Nations in Canada. In B.C., most First Nations are negotiating land deals and treaties and want a leader invested in these issues.

There are also hundreds of "treaty chiefs" elsewhere in the country who demand a candidate to represent existing treaty rights.

Ghislain Picard

Candidate Ghislain Picard is AFN regional chief for First Nations in Quebec and Labrador. (CBC)

In addition, there are many chiefs who want a leadership agenda centring on the broader legal concept of aboriginal rights.

Candidates who can mobilize chiefs with an agenda that focuses on certain regional issues often gain blocs of votes — a strategy successfully employed by leaders like Phil Fontaine and Shawn Atleo in the past.

5. The future of the AFN

The AFN is at a critical junction with the Canadian government.

It currently faces a federal government with an aggressive resource and ideological agenda that may need the AFN more than the AFN needs it.

The Canadian government clearly does not want the AFN to dissipate totally, since that would force it to deal with all First Nations individually or in smaller groups (such as those forged under treaty).

This gives the AFN potential bargaining leverage, and the campaign for national chief should be an opportunity to show how this can be best utilized in the best interests of all First Nations.

Niigaan Sinclair is an assistant professor in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba.