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As hundreds of native chiefs gather to pick a new national leader tomorrow, observers and the candidates themselves say they need to fundamentally rethink the way that aboriginals conduct their national politics.

It's a measure of the frustration that many aboriginals feel, some say, that each candidate for national chief of the Assembly of First Nations promises radical changes to the chiefs who will make their selections at touch-screen kiosks at a conference centre in downtown Edmonton.

"Right now the AFN isn't really relevant," said John Lagimodiere, editor of Eagle Feather News in Saskatoon. "It's hurting; it's dysfunctional."

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The AFN's federal funding has recently been cut by half. It's struggling to oppose sweeping new native legislation introduced by Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault, who has dismissed the AFN as "structurally incapable of working with the government."

Worst of all for the three candidates vying for control of the 21-year-old organization, a growing number of aboriginals say the national leadership has lost touch with its constituents.

"We've allowed a very small group to hijack this organization and marginalize it," said Phil Fontaine, a former national chief whose return to aboriginal politics represents the strongest challenge to the incumbent, Matthew Coon Come.

A third candidate, Roberta Jamieson, chief of the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ont., is considered less of a threat to her more experienced opponents but could decide the election if she throws her support to either of them on subsequent ballots.

Ms. Jamieson laughed when she heard Mr. Fontaine's assessment that the AFN has been pushed to the political margins. "Is that the Minister [of Indian Affairs]you're quoting or Phil Fontaine?" she said. "I hear an echo there."

The AFN does need to reconsider some of its basic tenets, Ms. Jamieson said, such as the tradition of allowing only the country's 633 chiefs to vote in the national leadership election. The organization must also find a way to enfranchise the large population of aboriginals who live in urban centres, she said.

It's only natural for the organization to consider major changes at this point in its development, she said: "There's nothing wrong with a healthy look back 20 years later."

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Mr. Fontaine left a position as head of the Indian Claims Commission to pursue the leadership that he lost to Mr. Coon Come in 2000. He's widely seen as a conciliator who could repair the AFN's relationship with Ottawa because of his ties to the federal Liberal Party. He would also strengthen the organization's regional presences, he says, in an effort to reconnect with local bands.

"It may be time to reinvent the AFN," he said. "It should not be a protest organization. It should be the legitimate voice of first nations in Canada."

Mr. Coon Come has agreed with some of his opponents' positions, including calls to make the AFN more financially independent from government and opposing Mr. Nault's legislation. He has also suggested widening the number of people allowed to vote in AFN leadership elections.

But he disagrees with their more diplomatic approach. Mr. Coon Come could not be reached for comment yesterday, but has often said that the organization needs a vocal, aggressive stance: "Some have said we're a protest group. I'm not ashamed of that," he said during a candidates' forum in Winnipeg last month.

Len Kruzenga, a reporter covering the election for the aboriginal newspaper First Perspective, said the chiefs must choose between Mr. Coon Come's activist model of politics and Mr. Fontaine's diplomatic approach.

"The first nations are at a crossroads," Mr. Kruzenga said.

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