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A group of youth from Sixth First Nations in Manitoulin Island perform the grass, fancy and jingle dances during the opening ceremonies of The Assembly of First Nations Annual General Assembly in Toronto on July 17, 2012.Michelle Siu/The Canadian Press

Four women are vying for the role of the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in what is being described as an "unprecedented" election.

For the first time in AFN election history, the number of female candidates is equal to the male candidates.

Still, history is against these women. While women have run before in past elections, the organization has never elected a female national chief.

The women – Oka crisis spokeswoman Ellen Gabriel, Manitoba lawyer Joan Jack, Anishinaabe lawyer Diane Kelly and Ryerson University professor Pam Palmater – will have to convince the predominantly male 633 assembly chiefs that one of them is the most qualified candidate to lead the largest aboriginal advocacy group in Canada.

Many observers at the general assembly in Toronto say it's unlikely that AFN will elect a female national chief – with the incumbent national chief Shawn Atleo having a perceived lead – but as Morris Shannacappo, chief of Rolling River First Nation, said, "it's long overdue."

Ms. Jack said it's important that more women are stepping up to the leadership plate and challenging the status quo.

"Certainly we have issues of domestic violence, sexism and chauvinism in our community, but those things come from colonization and not from our traditional cultures," Ms. Jack said. "This is an opportunity for our men … if they do elect a woman, it will show the world we are recovering back to our original state."

However, Ms. Kelly said the fact four women were running was incidental.

"I think it's fantastic that four women are running but it will really come down to credentials," she said. "I don't think gender really matters in this case. It's about who has the best vision for the AFN."