The result of the Assembly of First Nations election for national chief July 17 did not come as much of a surprise. Despite the manufactured drama whipped up by the media (at the urging of one particular candidate) about the deficiencies of Shawn Atleo, he received his second mandate to serve after three voting rounds.
Though some very talented people threw their hats into the ring, it was clear from the first ballot that there really was no significant divide at the chiefs’ organization. While some saw the differences in approach to the position of national chief as an irreparable fracture, there was, in reality, no greater fissure than one might expect to occur naturally, considering the great geographical span the organization serves.
The majority of the voting chiefs had no real complaint with Atleo’s leadership. He has been and will continue to do the chiefs’ bidding, as is his job, and will go where he is directed, do what he is instructed, and be the face of First Nations in Canada.
In fact, the real problem with Atleo was not in his vision. No, he said all the right things, hit all the right notes, was earnest enough, and could be trusted. The fact is his only real flaw, according to some, is that he does not represent the old guard, fostered and nurtured under long-serving former national chief Phil Fontaine. Bill Erasmus is from that era.
So it was significant that Fontaine’s old political foe Ovide Mercredi stood with Atleo on July 18 at the candidates’ forum to nominate him for a second mandate. Long-time readers will remember the election battles of the 1990s with those two heavyweights pitted against one another.
Some have suggested that Fontaine was playing with things in the background of this election. His name cropped up very early, if you remember, when Pam Palmater announced her candidacy. She said she had been consulting with Fontaine, and those in the know immediately jumped on that fact. His name quickly went underground like a peat fire.
Now, Palmater is one smart woman. No one can take anything away from her and we are not suggesting for one moment that she was being manipulated. She is charming, smart, quick-witted, and would have made a very compelling national chief, and we hope she stays around for a while because she has talent, and, quite honestly, she knows how to stir things up.
She handled herself with the spontaneity of an old pro during the question period at the candidates’ forum, where Atleo supporters did their best to trip her up. If there was a chance of anyone making serious inroads to overthrow Atleo and steal a second term from him, it was she, but not for the reasons stated so vehemently in the press.
Atleo is not the scary man he has been made out to be, marching First Nations into oblivion. If he was, the opposition forces would have coalesced around Palmater, and they did not.
Nor did they coalesce behind Ellen Gabriel’s campaign. Gabriel was the sentimental favorite of the so-called anti-establishment candidates, with no one able to dispute her sincerity or devotion to the rights of Indigenous people. Though she and Palmater were singing from the same songbook, Gabriel’s campaign was conducted in stark contrast to Palmater’s, starting slow, and remaining low-key for the most part.
Gabriel also lacked the focus of the other top two candidates, and we don’t believe she got around the country like they did, and that contributed to her disappointing results. Palmater had been sniffing around the race long before she declared, and put in the time and energy required of the campaign, and that’s the long and the short of what contributed to her success, her ability to connect with people.
For Erasmus’ part, his run was a disappointment. He was a non-entity in the candidate’s forum, and we’re just not sure if he had seen the writing on the wall coming into the election, so just gave up, or that he just was under the illusion of entitlement and thought the benefits would naturally flow.
But for a long-serving member of the AFN executive, his 29 votes in the first round were a paltry thing, and he did nothing to improve on his fortunes in subsequent rounds.
The lesson here is that the chiefs have moved on and they remain confident that Atleo is the leader that will best serve new interests. Congratulations National Chief. We look forward to seeing how you conduct yourself with this renewed mandate to lead for the next three years. The chiefs have chosen a direction, and it’s not backwards.
Full coverage of the election in our AFN Election Blog