Three men are vying to become the next chief of the Assembly of First Nations, each vowing to fight to improve conditions for Canada’s natives and repair divisions in the fractured national organization.
The election of chief for Assembly of First Nations (AFN) is set for Dec. 10 in Winnipeg, during the organization’s special assembly set for Dec. 9 to 11. The nomination period was Oct. 14 to Nov. 4.
The early advantage would seem to go to Ghislain Picard, 59, an Innu from eastern Quebec, and regional chief for Quebec and Labrador, who took over on an interim basis from former AFN chief Shawn Atleo, who resigned suddenly in May.
Picard recently told the Toronto Star that restructuring the AFN and strengthening its role as an advocate for First Nations communities is vital.
“I totally support the notion that there needs to be engagement with government, but as well there needs to be engagement with ourselves,’’ he said a few weeks ago, when he told the Star he planned to seek the AFN chief’s three-and-a-half year term.
But there is also strong support among the organization’s ranks for Perry Bellegarde, 52, chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. He ran unsuccessfully to lead the AFN in 2009.
His platform includes calls for a “new fiscal relationship’’ between First Nations people and Ottawa.
“There’s a huge socio-economic gap that exists. There’s still overcrowded housing, people living in Third World conditions, no access to potable water, caps on education, a disproportionate number of our people in jail,” Bellegarde said in an interview Wednesday.
“That has to be addressed. People have to get comfortable with concepts like treaty implementation, resource revenue sharing and establishing a new fiscal relationship with the Crown. Those should be looked upon as key strategic (approaches),” he added.
He committed to working with regional chiefs in the AFN to ensure the organization is regarded as relevant organization and respectful of its diverse voices.
Another candidate is Leon Jourdain, 60, a counsellor/therapist from Lac La Croix, near the Manitoba border, and a former two-term Treaty 3 grand chief, representing nearly 30 First Nations in Ontario and Manitoba.
Jourdain was charged with sexual assault in February 2004 after a Treaty 3 employee complained to police Jourdain kissed her. On the first day of his trial later that year, the charges were dropped after the complainant didn’t show up in court and couldn’t be located by police.
Jourdain has denied the allegations and has an ongoing $2.5-million lawsuit against the Ontario Provincial Police in Kenora that, among other things, alleges police proceeded with the case against him despite there being no reasonable prospect of a conviction.
In an interview, he said that Canada “got rich and developed economically at the expense” of treaties with First Nations people in this country and he wants to address that imbalance as a priority.
Having three male candidates is a switch from the 2012 general assembly for the AFN, held in Toronto, where eight candidates were in the running, including an unprecedented four women.
Shawn Atleo, a hereditary chief of the Ahousaht First Nation in British Columbia, was the incumbent at the time, and he won by 67 per cent in the third round of voting.
But he resigned abruptly in May of this year after being roundly criticized by other chiefs in Canada for supporting proposed changes to federal legislation on aboriginal education.
That’s when Picard took over in an acting capacity.
There are 639 First Nation communities in Canada that are recognized and represented by the AFN.