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assembly of first nations

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 biggest problem is the Harper government's hope that he wins re-election.

Mr. Atleo is National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. He faces seven challengers in Wednesday's vote to choose a new leader for a three-year term, while confronting the perception that he has become too tight with the Conservatives.

The hereditary chief of British Columbia's Ahousaht First Nation had a busy first term. On his watch, the federal government added Canada's name to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The AFN and the Harper government co-sponsored a panel on first nations education. Based on its findings, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan is expected to introduce a new First Nations Education Act that will bring modern principles of governance to schools on reserves, along with additional funding for those schools.

In January, Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with the chiefs, which led to a statement promising to "reset the relationship" between the Crown and the first nations, specifically by removing barriers to self-government.

But Mr. Atleo's accomplishments are also his biggest problem. Many chiefs boycotted the education panel and dumped all over the January meeting. The National Chief, they complain, should be making life miserable for the Tories, not helping them out, especially as the Harper government moves to build oil pipelines on lands they claim.

It doesn't help that, although the Conservatives are strictly neutral in this leadership battle, Mr. Harper and Mr. Atleo have had a good working relationship. The Tories would obviously prefer to continue that relationship rather than have to deal with a new and more obstreperous chief.

Mr. Atleo maintains his critics don't understand the proper role of the national chief.

"I see my role not as a hierarchical leader but as an advocate," he said in an interview. His job in Ottawa is "to open doors or kick them down."

And he takes second place to no one in his determination to defend native land claims.

Before any resource can be developed or any land exploited in territory claimed by first nations, those first nations "have the right to free, prior and informed consent," Mr. Atleo maintained, echoing the language of the UN declaration.

"If governments would try to sweep aside or dismiss our rights and title, we will stand up for the waters and land."

Mr. Atleo has strong support among B.C. first nations, as well as in other parts of the country. No clear challenger has emerged from the pack to confront him. And among some chiefs, especially the younger ones, there is a greater willingness to work with governments to improve the lives of natives on reserves, rather than simply grieve and protest.

But there is also a lot of anger, especially among the young who make up the majority of the population on reserves. They deeply resent private corporations carting off trees and minerals and otherwise exploiting what they consider their ancestral lands.

If that anger coalesces around one of Mr. Atleo's challengers, he could be in for a fight. And the Harper government could be in for a fight, whoever wins, if the AFN decides this week that the time of co-operation between first nations and the Crown must end, and a time of confrontation is at hand.