Pam Palmater, the runner-up in the election for a national chief election of the Assembly of First Nations, said being a woman played a factor in her defeat against the newly re-elected Shawn Atleo.
She is one of the four women who ran in this unprecedented election where the number of female candidates equaled the number of male candidates.
“Many people were very straightforward about that,” she said, conceding the change in attitude won’t come overnight. “It’s extremely difficult because many of our nations were led by women … The Indian Act messed with everything and wiped women of the leadership map, prevented them from being chiefs and prevented them from voting.”
Some of the female candidates and Aboriginal women at the AFN general assembly said a female national chief could have brought more focus to issues such as domestic violence and sexism in First Nation communities, as well as the missing women inquiry.
Mr. Atleo was re-elected as the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations with 66 per cent of the vote on Wednesday, after three turns on the ballot to secure the minimum 60 per cent needed for a victory.
He garnered 341 votes to defeat Ms. Palmater, a Mi’kmak lawyer who pulled together 141 votes.
While he evaded answering if gender played a role in his victory over Ms. Palmater, he acknowledged sexism is an issue in First Nations communities.
“I come from a matrilieneal society,” said Mr. Atleo, the hereditary chief of the Ahousaht First Nation in, B.C. “The issue of gender division are one of the external influences that have come into our communities and the re-building of relationships between men and women is something all our communities are undergoing.”
Many observers speculated the race would turn into a two-person race between Mr. Atleo and Ms. Palmater, and while it wasn’t that close a race between the two candidates, Bill Erasmus, the AFN Regional chief for the Northwest Territories, came in a distant third with 30 votes.
Ms. Palmater has been a vocal critic of Mr. Atleo’s tenure at the helm of the AFN, saying he was too close with the Harper government and had little to show for it.
She added there was a strong grassroots movement that believe the AFN is ready for a female national chief and speculated that the outcome might have been different if the aboriginal advocacy organization had universal vote for all its members instead of chiefs electing a national chief.
But Mr. Atleo’s victory was almost assured when he came just three votes shy of a win in the second ballot.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper was quick to congratulate Mr. Atleo on his re-election. In a statement, he highlighted his government's commitment to working "toward common goals, including creating the conditions for greater First Nations participation in the economy, and improving standards of living and quality of life.
“I look forward to continue working with National Chief Atleo to keep building solid partnerships between First Nations people and other Canadians, to the mutual benefit of us all.”
At the last AFN election in 2009, Mr. Atleo’s win was far less assured with votes running on for a record 23 hours. But in that election, there was no incumbent as long-time chief Phil Fontaine had called it quits.
Mr. Atleo's win increases the odds of the passage of the First Nation Education Act, which will be introduced by the Conservative government in the fall. While many chiefs were disgruntled with what they considered "interference" and a lack of consultation, the AFN, under Mr. Atleo's leadership, prioritized education and worked on a joint panel with Ottawa that suggested solutions such as First Nation school boards.
Ms. Palmater says she hopes that Mr. Atleo is more inclusive of the chiefs going forward.
If Mr. Atleo continues on this “path of assimilation with Harper, I will stand up and ask for something different,” she said.
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