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First Nations chiefs, some of whom are seen here with Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger at the AFN gathering in Winnipeg on Tuesday, were told it’s time for First Nations to be self-sufficient.Trevor Hagan/The Canadian Press

Each of the three men vying to lead Canada's largest indigenous organization says the relationship between the federal government and First Nations must evolve and it is the First Nations who will make the rules governing their people in the future.

Native leaders are gathering in Winnipeg this week to choose the next national chief of the Assembly of First Nations as resentment brews over federal laws they say were imposed without their consent. But questions are also being asked about the relevance of the AFN itself and whether the advocacy group can be restructured into an entity that will be a more formidable foe of Ottawa without overstepping the authority of the chiefs.

In speeches to the chiefs, the three contenders for the AFN's top job – Ghislain Picard, Leon Jourdain and Perry Bellegarde – promised to overhaul the way the organization does business. And each wants to expand the autonomy of First Nations.

Mr. Bellegarde is widely believed to be the front-runner in this contest, which was made necessary when Shawn Atleo resigned as national chief over his support for education legislation that a majority of First Nations across Canada had opposed.

Mr. Bellegarde, the Chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and the AFN's Saskatchewan regional chief, is more agreeable than his opponents to continuing dialogue with the federal government. But he still advocates change.

"We need to continue to exercise and implement that right to self-determination," Mr. Bellegarde told the more than 400 chiefs. First Nations, he said, should create their own laws rather than abide by federal legislation that has been "unilaterally imposed with no consultation."

It is also time for First Nations to become self-sufficient, he said. "We know all of the resources and the gross domestic product generated in this country come from our lands and our resources," he said. "So when I start talking about a new fiscal relationship with the Crown, we need to put that in place."

Mr. Picard, an Innu from Quebec, is also a member of the AFN executive. Although he tends to be more soft-spoken than Mr. Bellegarde and Mr. Jourdain, he is emphatic in his distrust of the Conservative government.

"There is a [federal] election in the not too distant future. We hope it will be sooner than later," Mr. Picard told the chiefs. "This government and its policies, when it comes to our peoples, have been a total failure."

Ottawa and native people have lurched from one court action to another, Mr. Picard said. "When is the next court action? On what? Is this the way to establish a relationship that respects who we are and respects our aboriginal and our treaty rights? We know the answers to those questions."

Mr. Jourdain has been around aboriginal politics for several decades, but he was late into the race and does not have the profile of Mr. Bellegarde or Mr. Picard. Even so, he was able to generate significant applause on Tuesday by attacking the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"Tell Mr. Harper to go take a hike," Mr. Jourdain said, "because he is absolutely useless to the indigenous peoples, to the Indians across this country. He has continued his assault on us and he absolutely believes that we are powerless. Let us show him that we are not."

While the leadership contenders were offering their vision for an emboldened AFN, the future of the organization was being called into question. Some chiefs boycotted this week's meeting because they questioned whether the AFN still has a purpose. Some balked at the cost to attend.

And the Treaty Alliance, an organization formed by Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs as an alternative to the national advocacy group, issued a statement saying it questioned "the validity of AFN structures and processes that thwarts the power and voices of the grassroots peoples from being engaged in matters that impact them."