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Generation divide shows in First Nations leadership speeches

CALGARY - The five candidates for the Assembly of First Nations’ top post delivered a final appeal for votes yesterday at Calgary’s packed Telus Convention Center.

Their fifteen-minute speeches were as notable for style as for content. The three youngest – Shawn Atleo, Perry Bellegarde, and John Beaucage – were smooth and emphatic, making as many well-rehearsed promises as they could squeeze into the allotted time and never veering from the script.

It was a big break from the fireside manner of Phil Fontaine and other elders who had dominated the opening ceremonies with ambling tales that veered from politics into childhood recollections and jabs at friends in the audience.

By contrast, these three sounded like western politicians, more likely to jab their fingers in the air to emphasize a point than tease a buddy or reminisce on family (though Atleo did recall his grandfather’s whale-hunting days as a metaphor for leadership).

All spoke of a “rights-based” approach to settling the myriad treaty disputes that continue to be the biggest issue in aboriginal politics; their tone seemed calibrated to convince their constituents that they would get results (“make no mistake,” said Beaucage, “things are going to be different from this day forward”) while at the same time reassuring Ottawa that the process would be collaborative (no more national days of action, in other words).

A share of Canada’s resource profits – that is, oil money – is the agreed-upon way out of poverty, and that means partnering with industry rather than taking one-time payoffs. Self-governance was another key theme.

“We have the right to self determination,” Bellegarde insisted, “we exercised it when we signed treaties in the first place.”

By contrast Bill Wilson, the oldest candidate at 65, managed to say almost nothing despite talking for fifteen minutes. The closest he came to discussing policy was to promise that under his leadership the AFN would no longer “go hat in hand to the government asking for handouts,” and would instead “demand its fair share of this country.”

With a face lined by decades of activism, he no doubt had the sympathy of many in the room, but it’s unlikely he’ll get many of their votes.

The same could be said of Terrance Nelson, who to his credit laid out the clearest platform of them all: “How do you expect the AFN to change government policy when it’s being paid to implement government policy?” he asked, referring to the fact that the AFN’s entire budget comes from the very government it has traditionally opposed.

Nelson’s solution is very clear: stop dealing with the Canadian government and start selling natural resources directly to foreigners.

“The Chinese have said to me that a national chief coming to China would be considered a state visit.” His message certainly resonated with the audience, but he never explained how these foreign interests would make it past Canada customs without Ottawa’s approval.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the day came during question period (which almost no one stayed to listen to). A young woman from Valdez Island on the west coast came forward to explain that “we have no running water, no infrastructure, and we are now burying our dead on the mainland because we’ve run out of room at home.”

Decades of petitions to the federal government had yielded not a penny’s help; unfortunately, the assembled candidates had no suggestions either.

As the afternoon gave way to an evening of swanky receptions (and a more rootsy two-stepping party that blew out Number 1 Legion), the rumour mill gave Bellegarde a slight edge going into today’s ballot. But Beaucage and Atleo are still very much in the game.

The voting works like Survivor, with a candidate eliminated each round until someone gets 60% – after pancake breakfast and a pow-wow, it could be a long day before the next national chief is decided upon.

Freelance journalist Arno Kopecky is blogging the AFN General Assembly for The Tyee.

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