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Elder Garry Sault of the Mississaugas of New Credit leads the Eagle Staff Procession across Wellington Street. The procession started on the Esplanade and ended at Fort York, July 16, 2012.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Shawn Atleo's tenure as national chief came under fire at Assembly of First Nations' all-candidates debate, with one opponent saying the country's native chiefs have become "too comfortable" in the relationship with Ottawa.

While Pam Palmater, considered one of the front-runners, didn't name Mr. Atleo specifically at the general assembly in Toronto, she has in the past accused him of being too collegial with the Harper government.

"In the last few years, AFN has become a little too comfortable," she said. "We have to be uncomfortable for the benefit of our people … The status quo is killing people. And that's not rhetoric, it's fact."

The country's native chiefs have assembled in Toronto to elect the next national chief, who will lead Canada's largest aboriginal organization for the next three years.

Ms. Palmater, a Mi'kmak lawyer and professor of indigenous studies, called the Conservative government the most "aggressive government we had to face in years" and promises a more assertive position to end this "abusive relationship."

"We don't say yes just to be nice," she told the assembly of 2,000, adding that the AFN is "deeply fractured."

Ovide Mercredi , a former Assembly of First Nations national chief who played a key role in resolving the Oka crisis, defended Mr. Atleo's diplomatic approach towards Ottawa.

"I would not support Atleo if he was close to the government," Mr. Mercredi said, as he introduced the incumbent at the AFN all-candidates debate. "He's close to the people, which matters most."

Mr. Atleo did not defend his tenure at the helm of the organization.

Instead, he said is "prepared to take action – with the full intention to do so in good faith with the Crown … but make no mistake, in the absence of the honour of the Crown, we will stand together and we will never compromise."

The measured 43-year-old, also the hereditary chief of the Ahousaht First Nation in B.C., is in a strong place heading into Wednesday's vote.

"We simply must smash the status quo," Mr. Atleo said, adding that education, treaty rights, infrastructure and resource development remain his priorities.

Ms. Palmater said AFN needs to work more on regional solutions for First Nations issues instead of imposing a national governance policy in Ottawa.

One such policy is the First Nation Education Act. The AFN and the federal government created a joint-national panel to assess and outline key recommendations to improving access to quality education. The legislation is expected to be presented in Parliament in the fall.

Mr. Atleo has made education his highest priority as national chief. But many chiefs are against the idea of First Nation school boards, which would reduce the authority of band councils.

"It's not for the AFN to say how your education should go," Ms. Palmater said. "We don't need more legislation … that's a delay tactic."

Mr. Atleo, however, disagreed, saying "we may be diverse but we have much more in common as First Nations."

Eight candidates in total are vying for the top role at the AFN. The winner must get 60 per cent of the vote of the 633 chiefs who are eligible to vote in order to hold office.

Mr. Atleo did not easily win the 2009 election that made him the head of Canada's largest aboriginal advocacy organization. It took 23 hours and multiple ballots for him to claim the national chief title.

Other contenders include Roseau River Chief Terry Nelson, Manitoba lawyer Joan Jack, the AFN Regional Chief of the Northwest Territories Bill Erasmus, Anishinaabe lawyer Diane Kelly, Oka crisis spokesperson Ellen Gabriel and ex-RCMP officer George Stanley.

While most observers agree that education is crucial to break the perpetual cycle of native poverty, natural resources will likely be the forefront of this election with many projects, such as the Northern Gateway pipeline, mines in Ontario and Quebec, potash plants in Saskatchewan and oil sands operations in Alberta dominating the discourse.

Ottawa recently made fundamental changes to environmental assessments and the Fisheries Act, in an attempt to speed up the approvals process for natural resource development. Many first nations are upset with the changes, saying they will undermine aboriginals' input into how natural resources are developed in their lands.

"I am so done being Canada's victim," Ms. Jack said.

Terrance Nelson,who won 10 per cent of the vote in a 2009 bid to lead the AFN, said the organization needs to start taking charge, especially of resource development, instead of relying on Ottawa for funding.

"There is no one coming to rescue us," he said. "We have to rescue ourselves."