TORONTO—Shawn Atleo, hereditary chief of the Ahousaht First Nation in B.C., was re-elected National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations after three rounds of voting in Toronto on Wednesday.
Atleo’s victory looked assured early on after he took 53 percent of the ballots in the first round of voting—284 of some 540 votes. He narrowly missed securing the leadership on the second round when he fell just three votes short of the 60 percent needed.
Only First Nations leaders can vote in the election.
He is a very considerate and principled leader.
— Grand Chief Stewart Phillip
With the win, Atleo resumes his role as national chief of the highest-profile First Nations advocacy group in the country, pushing forward with what his supporters describe as a long-term vision to advance the cause of Canada’s indigenous peoples.
Atleo one his first election in 2009 when his final opponent dropped out of the race following 23 hours of voting. His Wednesday win was comparatively decisive with 341 votes out of 512 on the third ballot. His closest competitor, Pamela Palmater, received 141 votes.
Between rounds of voting, Atleo met with other delegates and picked up the support of additional chiefs and their proxies. He also picked up the support of challenger Joan Jack who dropped off the ballot following a poor showing in the first round.
Many Atleo supporters rallied to a drum circle before settling into light chitchat inside the room for the B.C. caucus. Atleo’s B.C. roots are widely seen as an advantage within the AFN leadership race, with the province having some 200 votes in the contest, more than any other province in the country. Ontario comes second with 134 votes.
Atleo’s supporters in the room were relaxed, with the calm of the room broken only by the occasional reminder to go vote.
Sitting at a table chatting was Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, co-chaired Atleo’s 2009 campaign.
Despite vocal opposition to Atleo’s cooperative relationship with the federal government, Phillip said Atleo had proven himself, gaining what might be the largest first-ballot support ever.
“I don’t think there’s any question that National Chief Atleo has chosen over the last three years to take the high road. He is a very considerate and principled leader and I think that was the correct approach.”
Phillip said Atleo’s approach was pragmatic and delivered progress on long-standing issues.
Rather than getting caught up bashing the federal government over immediate issues like the lack of housing in Attawapiskat First Nation last winter, Atleo has maintained a dialogue with Harper’s government aimed at making progress on core issues.
I like how Shawn Atleo talks to the Canadian public.
— Grand Chief Joseph Riche
“I think the difference between Shawn’s leadership and the other candidates is they are more focused on the crisis issues and Shawn has a longer-term holistic vision and he realizes that there are fundamental underlying matters that need to be attended to. That is where his focus is.”
It’s an approach that has earned Atleo wide support, noted Phillip.
Atleo widened his support beyond his B.C. base by criss-crossing the country, meeting elders and people from many First Nations, and getting a firsthand understanding of their issues, said Phillip.
And while Atleo’s softer stance towards the feds has irked some indigenous leaders, it has won over others, like Grand Chief Joseph Riche of the Innu nation in Labrador.
“I like how Shawn Atleo talks to the Canadian public,” said Riche. “I like the dialogue.”
Atleo has made progress on important issues, he added.
“It is not a very big movement, but small steps go a long ways.”
Among those wins was the government’s decision to support the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and co-sponsor an education panel with the AFN that is expected to lead to a new First Nations Education Act to modernize reserve schooling and add additional funding.
Riche said Atleo’s soft manner fostered dialogue, and he supported that approach.
Early predictions forecast a difficult race for Atleo as vocal opponents decried his close working relationship with the government. His strong mandate is being interpreted as support for the direction he has taken the AFN during his first term.
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