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National Chief Shawn Atleo greets attendees at a memorial service to commemorate fallen warriors from 1812 at Fort York in Toronto on Monday, July 16, 2012. (MICHELLE SIU/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
National Chief Shawn Atleo greets attendees at a memorial service to commemorate fallen warriors from 1812 at Fort York in Toronto on Monday, July 16, 2012. (MICHELLE SIU/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Atleo’s second term as AFN chief hinges on 250 votes Add to ...

The number that may matter most is 250. The caucuses will decide things. If it goes well for Shawn Atleo, he could win in two ballots. If things go badly, it could be a long day.

More than 600 first nations chiefs from across Canada are in Toronto to choose a new national chief for the Assembly of First Nations. Mr. Atleo, the current national chief, has the advantage of incumbency, he has an organization – there are people wearing Shawn Atleo t-shirts – and he has support in the room.

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At the conclusion of his address during an all-candidates speech Tuesday afternoon, some of the chiefs rose in applause.

But not all of them, not by a long shot. His seven challengers accuse the AFN of kow-towing to the Harper government, rather than fighting harder for land and a fair share of resource wealth.

“In the last few years, the AFN has become a little too comfortable,” lawyer and professor Pam Palmater told the assembly. “We have to be uncomfortable for the benefit of our people.”

Ms. Palmater is thought to be one of the stronger contenders trying to defeat Mr. Atleo. But applause among the chiefs at the end of her spirited speech was tepid.

Another important contender is Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus. He is among those most determined to set Canada’s native people on a more emphatic path of confrontation with the federal government.

Emotion overcame Mr. Erasmus during his talk, making it difficult for him to speak. At the end of his allotted time, he rallied, declaring: “They have nothing but what we give them.”

He urged the chiefs to “get organized as never before,” because “no one else can govern us or ever will.”

The chiefs from each province and territory will caucus Wednesday morning before the first ballot. Each chief casts an independent vote, but the chiefs generally agree among themselves – though Ontario and some other provinces sometimes split regionally – which candidate best speaks to their concerns.

Sixty per cent of the chiefs must support one candidate before he or she can be named national chief. In off-the-record conversations with a number of chiefs before and after the speeches, the general feeling was that if Mr. Atleo can win about 250 votes in the first round, he is likely to win in the next round. His chances were thought to be good.

If he falls short, however, the caucuses will look at who is the strongest challenger, and whether their support should shift to that challenger. Then things could get interesting.

The candidates challenging Mr. Atleo spoke repeatedly about colonization, occupation, victimization.

“I’m so done being Canada’s victim,” said Manitoba lawyer Joan Jack.

In his own address, Mr. Atleo insisted that he, too was prepared to fight for control over ancestral lands.

But the news in his speech was a vow to insist on a national inquiry into violence against women, “to bring full light to this national tragedy, to achieve justice and healing.”

We’ll learn Wednesday whether such pledges are enough to earn the current national chief a second three-year term.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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