CALGARY — A dramatic showdown continued to play out late Wednesday when no clear winner emerged after the third ballot in the vote to select the next national leader of the Assembly of First Nations.
Shawn Atleo, an assembly vice-chief from British Columbia, was barely in first place with 50.09 per cent of the vote.
Perry Bellegarde, former leader of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, was second with 49.91 per cent.
However, the winner must get at least 60 per cent of the votes cast and the rules call for the voting to continue until that happens or until one of the candidates concedes.
After the first ballot, Atleo had looked like he was pulling into a commanding lead with 43 per cent compared to Bellegarde’s 29.
But third-place candidate John Beaucage, former grand chief of the Union of Ontario Indians, withdrew when he pulled only 15 per cent of the vote, sending his supporters to Bellegarde’s camp.
So did Bill Wilson, a B.C. consultant and veteran of political battles to have native rights in the Constitution.
He had only one per cent of the votes while Terry Nelson, chief of the Roseau River First Nation in Manitoba, got 10 per cent.
Both men were knocked out of the race because they did not achieve the 15 per cent minimum required of the 552 votes.
The second ballot also ended in a virtual dead heat — Atleo had 50.36 per cent of the vote while Bellegarde had 49.64.
James Frideres, director of the International Indigenous Studies Program at the University of Calgary, suggested the results were so close because both candidates and young and relatively unknown.
“That’s the reason it’s taking so long,” he said. “No one has achieved a national status at this point.”
He said the close votes had delegates scrambling to dicker with each candidate and see what promises they could get, particularly on funding issues.
But he said the close race doesn’t mean the AFN will end up fractured.
“The first thing people will ask (the winner) is how are you going to deal with the federal government? Are you going to be, as in the case of Matthew Coon Come, confrontatonal … and aggressive and take a very political stance, or are you going to be a Phil Fontaine (and) … see what kind of compromises can emerge.”
After the first ballot, Atleo and his team seemed confident of victory.
Atleo stopped briefly to talk to reporters before the second ballot commenced, saying he would be reaching out to all regions of the country.
“This has to be about all the chiefs coming together, the notion that no one can be left behind, whether they’re from remote, isolated communities or communities closer to the centre of big cities,” he said.
Atleo didn’t waver from that message when his lead evaporated after the second ballot. He and his team quickly hunkered down and started strategizing, fanning out to approach delegates.
Whoever wins will become the assembly’s national chief and replace Fontaine, who is not seeking re-election after three terms as the organization’s leader.
The winner will become the public face of aboriginal negotiations with the federal government and will have to try to balance often-conflicting priorities of natives across the country, both on- and off-reserve.
He’ll also have to decide whether to take the organization in a new direction as it struggles for relevance in far-flung communities still waiting for a share of wealth from traditional lands and resources that were never ceded or sold.
Another imminent issue is how to deal with an expected resurgence of the H1N1 virus expected this fall. The swine flu has hit some aboriginal communities particularly hard and challenges include how to get supplies and a vaccine to remote areas already struggling with overcrowding and a lack of running water.
Beaucage, a former economist, has argued for reform of the assembly’s elections, saying the vote for national chief should be extended to all First Nations citizens.
He’s said that if the assembly doesn’t start becoming more relevant and represents everyone, then it probably shouldn’t exist.
He said Wednesday that he made a pact with Bellegarde during the campaign that each would support the other if they were knocked out first.
As for why he didn’t win, Beaucage said his strong support for reform probably cost him votes.
“The AFN has to be relevant and it has to look after all First Nations citizens,” he said. “I see 60 per cent of our community of people who live in urban areas, and they don’t believe the AFN looks after them.”
Bellegarde, a former Saskatchewan chief for the assembly, has said his priorities include pushing Ottawa to lift a yearly funding growth cap of two per cent that is applied to more than $10 billion spent annually on native programs. He argues that amount can’t keep up with inflation and native population growth.
Atleo, who at 42 is the youngest of the potential leaders, said he mirrors the growing aboriginal population in Canada.
“I think the demographic in our country amongst the aboriginal population is a youthful one. And certainly the youth are not for the future, they are right now, they are a booming population that must be supported, fully included in our efforts to improve the conditions of our communities.”
Most of the 639 chiefs eligible to vote were based in B.C. and the Prairies.