Three men running for the position of national chief for the Assembly of First Nations is a far cry from the eight – four men and four women – who jumped into the race in 2012.
“The political climate is too extreme,” said Grassy Narrows First Nation Chief Simon Fobister. “There’s a lot of mixed emotions across the board so it would have been challenging for anyone to enter into that climate.”
Fobister’s name would have been on the ballot alongside Perry Bellegarde, Leon Jourdain and Ghislain Picard if not for a mix up in communication between the chief electoral officer’s assistant and Fobister, he said. Fobister says he was told he could not electronically submit his nomination form so went to Ottawa to get the signatures he needed. He was unable to meet the commitment.
Shawn Atleo resigned suddenly in May, midway through his second term, amidst controversy surrounding the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act and charges of being too close to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the governing Conservatives.
“In my opinion, the AFN has become more fractured and regionalized and we can’t seem to find common ground to fight for common issues,” said Fobister.
“It’s certainly a different time to be coming into the AFN,” said Wab Kinew. “I think Atleo’s resignation exposed a lot of the internal conflicts and controversies within the AFN.” Kinew, the University of Winnipeg’s director of Indigenous inclusion, had considered entering the race but personal reasons – a new wife and spending more time with his two children – convinced him that politics at this time wasn’t a good fit.
Kinew said the new leader also faces challenges outside of the organization with constant clashes with the federal government.
Fobister said he had heard rumours that Mi’qmaq lawyer Pam Palmater, who finished a distant second to Atleo in 2012, had considered running again. But there are no women contenders this time around.
“First Nations politics has a long way to go to be a level playing field for Indigenous women and the especially toxic nature of it right now may have turned some female candidates off,” said Kinew.
However, he notes that a number of high profile First Nations women have expressed interest in seeking seats in the upcoming federal election.
Relevance of the AFN – an issue raised by all three contenders for national chief– is also another reason why the number vying for the position has decreased.
“Some leaders are very concerned about the AFN’s roles and responsibilities and that it needs to be restructured so that it can become stronger and unite all the regions,” said Fobister.
“AFN seems to be disconnected from a lot of grassroots people,” said Kinew, who suggests remedying that by offering services and supports to the grassroots and playing a role in cultural and language revitalization.
The AFN is also facing the challenge of representing an ever-growing number of members who live in urban settings.
Kinew is adamant that a relevant AFN has a role to play.
“There’s always going to be need for a national voice for First Nations people because there’s always going to be federal legislation,” he said. “There should be a national advocacy body like the AFN. So it’s needed.”
Both Kinew and Fobister believe that the three contenders – Ghislain Picard, currently acting national chief, Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nation Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde, and former Treaty 3 Grand Chief Leon Jourdain – all have strengths.
“They’re all experienced politicians but that cuts both ways,” said Kinew. “So they’re certainly knowledgeable about the political scene, First Nations communities, but it also means they’re all status quo.”
Neither Kinew nor Fobister is endorsing a candidate at this time.
At the end of the day, said Fobister, it is up to the 633 chiefs or their proxies.
“Very bright, intelligent men and women that occupy those positions, they’ll make the decision and I think it’ll be the right one,” he said.
The national chief is elected by a majority of 60 per cent of the ballots cast. The vote will take place Dec. 10, during the Special Chiefs Assembly Dec. 9 to Dec. 11 in Winnipeg.