Palmater challenging Atleo for AFN leadership

Pam Palmater has never been a chief, has only had her First Nations status for a year, and works in downtown Toronto, far from her reserve. That isn't stopping her from challenging Shawn Atleo and running to be national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

42-year-old lawyer, author, professor and pundit launches campaign for national chief in Halifax

Pam Palmater knows full well that the odds are stacked against her in the race to be the most powerful First Nations leader in the land.

The 42-year-old lawyer, author, professor and political pundit has never been a chief, has only had her First Nations status for a year, and works in downtown Toronto, far from her reserve.

But Palmater, a Mi'kmaq from New Brunswick, says she feels compelled to run for national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, pushed by a groundswell of grassroots support.

"The direction that the AFN is following, they seem to be following the path that the Conservatives have laid out," Palmater said in a recent phone interview.

"To me it's a very destructive path. And it looks like some people don't even realize how destructive it is."

Her candidacy will shake things up in an election that will either accept or reject the conciliatory approach to federal politics that current national chief Shawn Atleo has come to represent – rightly or wrongly.

More than 600 chiefs will be able to vote in the July 18 contest in Toronto. And even though Palmater is not able to vote, she is qualified to run. She officially launched her campaign on Tuesday in Halifax, hoping to become the AFN's first female national chief.

Politics run thick in her blood. And social media is on her side.

Palmater is one of 12 children from a New Brunswick family, spending her childhood just outside the reserve she now belongs to.

She went to school in Fredericton, earned four degrees, and has been deeply entrenched in aboriginal law, volunteer activities and activism ever since.

"I grew up in one of those crazy politically active families," she said, laughing.

"They instilled in me this really huge responsibility to always stand up for your people. Always, always, no matter what people say."

Quick with an insightful sound bite, Palmater is frequently quoted in print and on television. She uses social media to its full advantage – a veteran of Facebook, Twitter and blogging to a disparate and remote First Nations network that is increasingly plugged in.

Despite her long-standing ties to First Nations and intricate family ties to the Eel River Bar First Nation, she did not become a member there until last year, after changes in the laws governing status took effect.

She says she wants to win the AFN leadership, but her main purpose is to bring a grassroots voice to the policy discussion, and make chiefs think twice about accepting the status quo.

"Everyone talks about resetting the relationship. There's nothing to reset," she said. "The treaty relationship is there. We just now have to get Canada to live up to its part of the bargain."

Atleo is in her crosshairs. Palmater said he has co-operated too closely with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and has little to show for it. She argues repeatedly on her blog that his leadership has taken First Nations down the path of assimilation.

"Being extra nice to the Conservatives isn't actually advancing our interests," she said in the interview, pointing to funding cuts. "We're making things worse."

Instead, she said she envisions immediate action for communities dealing with day-to-day crises with poverty, health and clean water.

The AFN should be convening not just federal officials but also provinces and First Nations leaders to put together an emergency action plan that would quickly bring help to the minority of reserves in deep trouble.

She also wants a stronger call for a larger share of the country's wealth -- not just natural resources, but also transfer payments.

"We have a right to these resources, versus others who only have a privilege or a permit," she said. "So a bigger piece of the pie...would be enough to sustain our communities."

First Nations have been far too conciliatory with Canada, she argues, and that approach has cost them their culture and independence.

"We continually come to the table despite negative things that have happened to us -- despite residential schools, scalping, forced sterilization, you name it -- we keep coming to the table. At some point in time, Canada has got to act honourably and say, 'You know what, it's time for us to share."'

Palmater said she plans to spend the next few weeks driving from community to community to drum up support and win over the chiefs.

She said she has a strong network of volunteers, noting that former national chief Phil Fontaine has been "very helpful" behind the scenes.

"There's always a chance," she said. "People always underestimate the underdog."

In addition to Atleo, Palmater will also likely be squaring off against Bill Erasmus, who has been a regional chief for Northwest Territories for almost two decades, and is a prominent AFN executive.

Palmater's pitch resonates loudly with many First Nations people and her values are consistent with many, said Isadore Day, chief of the Serpent River First Nation in southern Ontario.

But because she has never been a chief, her main challenge will be to show that she has what it takes to bring more than 630 chiefs together and forge a coherent national voice, said Day, who has not taken a public stand on the race yet.

"She does an excellent job of knowing what the on-the-ground issues are for our people," Day said.

"It remains to be seen if she can play the field politically, at the table, in a country with 633 chiefs."