The fight to lead Canada's First Nations

Co-operation versus confrontation? It is the perennial question at Assembly of First Nation elections, Duncan McCue writes. This time, though, the cast is different and so may be the stakes.

It was just a tweet. But 140 characters spoke volumes about the race to become the next leader of the Assembly of First Nations.

"Should I be aggravated when my some of my fellow male colleagues … make sexist jokes as we prep for the APTN debate? I think so!"

The accusation of sexism, tweeted by Joan Jack, an Anishinaabe lawyer from Manitoba and one of seven contenders vying to replace AFN national chief Shawn Atleo on Wednesday, was more than just political jockeying.

Shot out in the heat of preparing for a televised candidates' debate, Jack's tweet highlighted what makes this AFN election like no other: an unusual number of women candidates (four of the eight), an explosion of social media commentary (which will undoubtedly extend to what happens on the convention floor), and unprecedented scrutiny of the candidates by aboriginal journalists at the Aboriginal People's Television Network and elsewhere.

These growing efforts — baby steps, to some — at making the AFN more accountable to its ultimate constituents, the more than 700,000 status Indians, are encouraging for those who see the organization as too far removed from the concerns of the people it purports to represent.

Yet, some things haven't changed. The outcome of Wednesday's election will still be determined by the 630 or so First Nation chiefs in a flurry of deal-making on the floor of Toronto's Convention Centre.

The stakes are high. The national chief is, arguably, the most powerful Indian in the country.

With a direct pipeline to politicians in Ottawa and the national media, the AFN leader sets the tone for the relationship between First Nations and the rest of Canada.

And with so many pressing concerns — the abysmal living conditions on many reserves, child welfare issues and the battle for control of resource development on Aboriginal lands — tone is important.

Co-operation or confrontation?

This time out, eight people are contending for the top job, including four women (three of them lawyers), two regional vice-chiefs, an outspoken former Manitoba band chief and the incumbent, B.C. hereditary chief Shawn Atleo, who is in for a fight.

The undercurrent here: Atleo is being criticized by his opponents for being too "cozy" with the Harper government in the three years that he has been national chief.

Outspoken lawyer Pam Palmater, one of four women seeking to replace Shawn Atleo as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. (Andrew Vaughan / Canadian Press)

"The policy of appeasement at the AFN has not gained the AFN, or anyone else, any favours," said one challenger, Pam Palmater, a Mi'kmaq lawyer and academic, during last week's candidates' debate. "You need someone who can stand up to the bully and demand that we have a respectful relationship."

Co-operation versus confrontation? It is the perennial question of AFN elections, going back decades now.

With all candidates pledging to fight for aboriginal and treaty rights, and to improve the lot of Canada's First Nations in housing, education and health, the only thing that sets candidates apart is approach.

Aggressive rhetoric in the media, direct-action tactics, marches on Parliament Hill. Or quiet relationship-building in Ottawa — and building up the coffers of the AFN with partnerships with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs?

Atleo bills himself as a "facilitator," someone who hopes to work with Ottawa to advance the First Nations agenda on such things as education and revenue sharing from resources on native lands.

He counts, as one of his achievements, the Crown-First Nations gathering last January, which brought chiefs and Prime Minister Stephen Harper into the same room for a day.

But his rivals have derided what Atleo lists as accomplishments.

"The AFN really messed up at the so-called Crown-First Nations gathering," says Terry Nelson, a former chief of the Rosseau River First Nation in Manitoba, often billed as a firebrand by mainstream media. "They treated Harper as God. The chiefs were muzzled."

New ways?

At this point, it is hard to predict who will win this contest. Some online polls suggest Palmater is leading Atleo, but the only people who matter in this vote are chiefs.

National chief Shawn Atleo, very businesslike in his approach to the federal government. (Chris Wattie / Reuters)

A national chief needs to secure the support of 60 per cent of the chiefs at the general assembly to win and AFN watchers suggest Atleo has shored up his support in B.C. and Ontario, the two largest blocks of potential voters.

That was enough to carry him to victory in 2009, though it took him eight ballots to defeat Saskatchewan's Perry Bellegarde, who was backed by the Prairie chiefs, wanting a strong advocate for historic treaty rights.

Like many AFN elections before, this one may be well decided in the backrooms in the wee hours of the morning.

But what sets this race apart is not just the number of women — a far cry from previous elections when female candidates such as Roberta Jamieson and Wendy Grant-John were dogged by whisper campaigns suggesting women weren't up for the job — but also the role of social media.

Joan Jack's tweet alleging sexism reverberated instantly throughout aboriginal social media, and forced some of the candidates to explain their behaviour. The real import, though, is that the tweet stirred campaign debate and may even wind up shaping how some chiefs vote.

Social media has also given grassroots citizens in isolated communities more of a chance to have their say.

In the past, campaigns were conducted largely in person, with candidates criss-crossing the country to speak to gatherings of local chiefs. That has continued, but the new media has given candidates with few resources new ways to communicate.

Palmater used Twitter to launch her campaign, and other candidates short of funds have relied on social media to get their message out and replay their best moments from the APTN candidates' debate.

It could be a long day of coverage on Wednesday, with Atleo's showing in the first round key to determining whether he can repeat.

Expect a tweet or a Facebook message to first break the results, as well as to signal the coming tone of the AFN, perhaps regardless of who wins.