By Jorge Barrera and Tim Fontaine
APTN National News
TORONTO–After one of the most fractious election campaigns in recent memory, Shawn Atleo secured a second three-year term at the helm of the Assembly of First Nations Wednesday and used his first post-vote speech to hammer home a message of unity.
Atleo fended off seven challengers to win re-election on the third ballot of voting in Toronto garnering 341 votes of a total of 512 votes cast by chiefs or their representatives.
“Going forward, I reflect back to what the ancestors remind us of, we are stronger together,” said Atleo.
Atleo’s opponents could not gather enough support to knock him off despite firing off heated criticism that he was too close to the Conservative government and not listening enough to chiefs.
Mi’kmaq lawyer and Ryerson Professor Pam Palmater emerged as his main challengers, but despite her second place showing on all three of the ballots, her support was miles away from Atleo’s. She ended with 141 on the third ballot, 107 on the second ballot and 95 on the first.
Dene National National Chief Bill Erasmus was the only other candidate to stay on all three ballots and he finished with 30 votes.
It was the unity of British Columbia chiefs backing Atleo that secured his victory. With about 200 British Columbia votes in hand, Atleo entered the race with a numerical advantage in an election where only chiefs are eligible to vote.
Ontario, with potentially 133 votes, could not come together to form a bloc, despite a large number who were upset with the way Atleo handled the Attawapiskat housing crisis late last year and his endorsement of a joint AFN-Aboriginal Affairs education panel to study on-reserve education.
Manitoba chiefs also found themselves divided among several candidates, including two who came from the province, former Ojibway chief Terry Nelson and Ojibway lawyer Joan Jack.
Nelson dropped out on the second ballot and Jack on the first.
Mohawk activist Ellen Gabriel, who rose to prominence as a calming voice during the Oka crisis, dropped out after the second ballot and supported Palmater.
Former Treaty 3 grand chief Diane Kelly also bowed out after the second ballot.
Atleo praised all the candidates and returned to the theme of unity throughout his victory speech.
“Who would think that with over 50 language groups covering every inch of the territories we share that we could find a way to come together?,” said Atleo. “We will work together, recognizing we share inherent rights and titles…we will reject government’s attempt to deny or extinguish our rights.”
Atleo also addressed the perceived view that he’s detached from the grassroots population, which, based on social media activity, had primarily gravitated to the female candidates Palmater, Gabriel, Jack and Kelly.
“I was asked here…by one of the chiefs to speak directly to the people and so I do want to do that,” he said. “To all of our people we refer to as the grassroots, the grassroots people, all voices must be heard and included.”
Atleo’s electoral victory, however, left behind some poisoned feelings.
Nelson said up to 10 First Nations would leave the AFN as a result of Atleo’s victory.
Palmater also left with parting shot at Atleo.
“There is a joint plan between Alteo and Harper and this vote shows that a majority of chiefs are okay with that plan, but there is a good 40 per cent that are not,” said Palmater. “Somehow there is going to have to be a bridging.”
Erasmus struck a more conciliatory tone.
“Let’s give a strong mandate to the national chief so when he leaves here he knows that the people are with him,” said Erasmus.
Much of the early part of this election focused on speculation over where votes would originate. With British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario holding the most First Nation communities, many wondered which candidate they would support – and if they would do so
Even before voting began, there was word that Atleo had garnered the support of British Columbia’s over 200 First Nation chiefs, a powerful voting bloc. But none of this was announced and few chiefs
would admit who they – or others in their region were supporting.
And while Atleo clearly dominated the first round of voting, it became difficult to pinpoint who among his opponents could challenge him. Palmater, Nelson and Erasmus refused to concede or confirm whether they would strike deals among themselves or with the incumbent.
As the candidates would go from caucus room to caucus room, often with supporters in tow, there was speculation over whether they had garnered more votes. Caucus rooms are traditionally off-limits for journalists and this election was no different.
When candidates would emerge, often they would refuse to speak directly with reporters, leaving many to wonder about their next move.
Missing from this election were the often very deliberate actions by candidates seen in previous races. In 2009, when a candidate was ready to strike a deal or concede defeat, they would walk toward the other
candidate with supporters following behind – often to applause. Far different than this year where these sorts of announcements were announced quietly or not at all.
Even the candidate entries to the main hall were subdued and without much of the fanfare seen in previous elections. Only incumbent Shawn Atleo entered the hall accompanied by drums and singing – but even those entrances were toned down by the last ballot.