A veteran of native politics and an indigenous broadcaster are the first people being named as potential challengers to succeed Shawn Atleo as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
The winner of the contest, which will be decided by an assembly of chiefs later this year, will face the daunting challenge of finding common ground across the hundreds of diverse native communities in Canada while proving the relevance of the national body to an increasingly dubious grassroots.
Perry Bellegarde, the Chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and the Regional Chief for Saskatchewan on the executive of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), is said to be considering a run at the job. Mr. Bellegarde could not be reached for comment on Tuesday, but people close to him said they expect his name will be on the ballot.
Also weighing his chances is Wab Kinew, the director of Indigenous Inclusion at the University of Winnipeg who hosted the CBC Television series 8th Fire and has won several media awards.
“I am indeed contemplating it,” Mr. Kinew said in an e-mail on Tuesday. He said he is waiting for chiefs to decide the date of the election when they meet at an assembly next week.
More contenders will likely step forward before the ballots are cast. But finding someone who is broadly accepted by a majority of First Nations people will not be easy.
Already there are criticisms being circulated of Mr. Bellegarde for being too moderate, and of Mr. Kinew for being too much of a neophyte.
Mr. Alteo was criticized for his public support of the legislation the government calls the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, which is widely opposed by other chiefs. Some native leaders say the primary obligation of the next national chief will be to follow the wishes of the people.
Billy Two Rivers, an elder and former chief from Kahnawake in Quebec, said it’s very simple. The next national chief will be “somebody who can take orders from the chiefs in assembly and follow through on the mandate that he or she is given and not to run amok on their own ideas.”
And Bill Erasmus, the Dene National Chief and the AFN Regional Chief for the Northwest Territories, said “the national chiefs who are successful are the ones who include the people in decision making.”
British Columbia, Mr. Atleo’s home province, has nearly a third of Canada’s 617 First Nations, which means it has almost a third of the votes.
But some native leaders say the next national chief will not come from B.C. because most First Nations in that province – unlike most of the rest of Canada – do not have treaties with the Crown. For the majority of First Nations that have treaties, the agreements are the central issue in any negotiation with the government – and they need someone leading the AFN who will drive that home.
But there are many First Nations people, especially youth, who say the AFN is no longer representative, or workable, and should simply be dissolved.
Chief Georjann Morriseau of the Fort William First Nation in Northern Ontario said she has heard those rumblings and, for that reason, it is clear the AFN must evolve. “It must be more representative of all the First Nations regardless of need, location or whether they are treaty or non-treaty. I think it’s going to take somebody [as national chief] to make those strategic moves and really start going back to the communities.”
But Grand Chief Doug Kelly of the Sto:lo Tribal Council in B.C., who is a good friend of Mr. Atleo’s, said he does not know if a person exists who can make the AFN function as a unified body. “I’m not sure there is anyone on Earth,” Mr. Kelly said. “There might be someone in Heaven who could take on the job.”