TORONTO – First Nations politics are about to get a lot more interesting.

The current national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn Atleo, is going to officially launch his campaign for re-election in Vancouver later today.

As the incumbent and with a strong base in British Columbia, Atleo is by far the front runner for the elections to be held July 18 in Toronto.

But the race won’t be a boring one.

Atleo will be challenged by Terry Nelson, a Manitoba chief who has garnered attention by flirting with Iran – a long shot.

He may face a more serious challenge in Bill Erasmus, who has been the regional chief for Northwest Territories for almost two decades.

The wild card is political pundit Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer and Toronto professor who has never been elected, but who has a large grassroots following.

She is also a woman running for a position that has always been held by a man; and she has never been a chief — making her a renegade candidate in a race that will set the tone for First Nations-federal government relations for the next three years.

Palmater informally launched a grassroots Twitter campaign last weekend, and is now exploring campaign financing.

Central to her pitch is criticism of Atleo’s approach to dealing with the federal government.

“It is no secret that I think Atleo’s path is by far one of most dangerous one ever proposed by a national chief,” she writes on her most recent blog posting.

“The fact that it is endorsed by the most right-wing government in recent years is also cause for concern. I honestly believe that the current ‘joint action plan’ between Canada and Atleo-led AFN appears is a formula for assimilation.”

Atleo has made improvements to First Nations education the centrepiece of his three-year tenure at the helm of the AFN.

But while there is no disagreement that better education is important for First Nations, his approach has attracted controversy.

He agreed to a joint action plan with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, setting up a task force that produced recommendations on education, and also led to a summit with chiefs, Harper and cabinet ministers.

But several key First Nations groups refused to meet with the education task force, saying they had had enough of reports and wanted action. And several more chiefs expressed their disappointment in the lack of outcomes at the summit, as well as the level of funding First Nations education received in the spring federal budget.

Palmater’s criticisms may well resonate with First Nations people, but to win the title of national chief, she will need the votes of chiefs from regions across the country.

Candidates for national chief need to be nominated by June 12.

Regardless, the next First Nations leader will need to deal closely with the Harper government, since it is planning legislation on clean water and private land ownership, and is also pushing to conclude numerous comprehensive land claim negotiations.

Plus, the election comes at a time of restlessness in many First Nations communities that are disgruntled about changes to environmental assessment and fisheries, and are leery of natural resource development and pipelines across their traditional lands.

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