TORONTO - One after another, the eight candidates vying for the most powerful First Nations position in the land vowed Tuesday to find a way to increase their people’s share of Canada's wealth.
The question remains: How?
Their answer will determine, in large part, who wins Wednesday’s election for the next national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. It will also determine how First Nations relate to government, corporations and the rest of Canada in general, as the economy embraces natural resources.
"Just as our ancestors did, our people are standing up right across the country," said incumbent Shawn Atleo, citing natives demanding a larger say in Quebec’s Plan Nord, Ontario’s Ring of Fire mining development, and energy and pipeline projects throughout the West.
"And I stand firm with them."
But the chiefs who cast their ballots on Wednesday need to know what happens after that, said Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy.
While many of the B.C. chiefs seem to be ready to support Atleo, the Ontario chiefs are still looking for answers even as the six-week campaign period draws to a close, Beardy said in an interview.
“We know what our problem is; what is the solution?” he said. “We’re looking for someone who will assert our inherent jurisdiction, so we can get our fair share.”
For Atleo, increasing First Nations’ share of the wealth means reviving rights determined centuries ago in treaties, and pushing Prime Minister Stephen Harper to live up to his commitment to discuss treaty implementation.
"The Crown’s indication of a willingness to discuss implementation means we must together force this work forward in accordance with the spirit and intent of treaty," he said.
It’s a mouthful that gently reminded the chiefs that Atleo, during his first term as national chief, brought Harper to the table and obtained a commitment to at least talk about replacing the Indian Act with something that reflects First Nations’ rights to the land and its resources.
Other candidates were not so gentle.
"Let us get organized like never before," said Dene Chief Bill Erasmus. "Let’s spell out clearly how we can take care of ourselves."
Diane Kelly, a former grand chief from the northern region straddling Ontario and Manitoba, set a 150-day time limit to determine new ways to get First Nations to the negotiating table as equal partners.
In a series of presentations, a last public pitch from the candidates to sway the chiefs before Wednesday's vote, hopefuls sought to differentiate themselves and show their determination to advocate loudly for First Nations’ rights — not just in natural resources, but also in education, child welfare, and when it comes to dealing with Ottawa.
"We know the status quo is killing our people. We’re also, on top of that, having to face the most aggressive government in several generations," said Pam Palmater, a Mi'kmaq lawyer and professor at Ryerson University in Toronto.
"We have to work with this government. They’re in our house, and we have to work with them. We want to work with them. But the choice is not about working with the federal government in an abusive relationship," she said.
"We have far more power than we give ourselves credit for."
Palmater has taken Atleo head on, accusing him of cowering before the federal government and leading First Nations further down the path of assimilation.
But she and the others have a stiff challenge in defeating Atleo. He was the only candidate to show up at the assembly with an entourage of drummers, dancers and supporters, followed by a small staff of frenetic organizers.
He carries solid support in British Columbia – the region that commands the largest number of votes at the AFN election. His victory will likely depend on how many of them, or their proxies, can make it to Toronto for the vote, numerous sources said.
Atleo was introduced by former national chief Ovide Mercredi, still widely respected for his work on treaty rights. Mercredi made a point of saying Atleo was not too cosy with Harper.
“He is not close to government. He is close to our people — which matters more."
All the candidates were campaigning hard Tuesday in the corridors of the convention centre, setting up hospitality suites and chatting with as many chiefs as possible.
A candidate needs 60 per cent of the vote to claim victory. The election three years ago took eight ballots and lasted into the wee hours of the morning, but chiefs this time say there is little appetite for a lengthy battle.
The meeting will also see chiefs determine AFN policy for the coming year, with a focus on improving health care, infrastructure and oversight over the environment.
"It does set the tone between those relationships between the chiefs across the country — from coast to coast to coast — and Ottawa," said NDP aboriginal affairs critic Jean Crowder, who is attending the meeting as an observer.
"The national chief is the public figure of chiefs across this country, and this is where the work gets done around things that are really important in the First Nations community.
"I’ve heard a number of chiefs and non-First Nations people say, neither one of us is going away. We have to learn how to work together."
More than 2,000 delegates are attending the three-day meeting, including more than 300 chiefs. The next national chief is expected to be declared by the end of the day on Wednesday.