It was only a couple of years ago that the native peoples were threatening to shut down parts of the country’s railway system at their national day of protest. One of the protest leaders was Terry Nelson of Manitoba. He enthusiastically declared that “we can shave $200 billion off the GDP of Canada.”

Things have thankfully calmed down since then. Mr. Nelson is a candidate for the leadership of the Assembly of First Nations which will be decided in Calgary. But of the five contestants for the position his chances are deemed remote at best. The winner will likely be one of the more conservatively inclined candidates, Shawn Atleo or John Beaucage.

That’s surprising because the AFN has not exactly had an easy time with the Conservative government. It cut its funding to $7 million from $10 million.

The Conservatives also did away with the Kelowna Accord, a $5-billion program of social assistance. But under outgoing national chief Phil Fontaine, the First Nations have moved to see gains can better be made through conciliation. The leading candidates to succeed Fontaine are focusing on economic development. They want more investment in housing and education to address their high cost of living.

Education is high on the candidates’ agenda. It’s appalling that funding for aboriginal students is $1,200 less than the national average.

Shawn Atleo, the regional chief of the AFN for British Columbia, is seen as the frontrunner in the election, in good part because the voting under the AFN’s antiquated system is done by the country’s 633 chiefs and about one-third of them are from B.C. The 42-year-old Atleo is pushing hard on education reform. His main challenger, John Beaucage, grand chief of the Union of Ontario Indians, is an economist who favours more self-government.

A third strong contender is Saskatchewan’s Perry Bellegarde, who is pressing for an overhaul of fiscal relations with Ottawa.

AFN elections are hard to predict. In the past they have brought forward radicals like Mathew Coon Come. This time such an outcome is unlikely. Though their problems are enormous, though their living standards are embarrassing in a country of such wealth, the First Nation chiefs appear content to favour pragmatism over extremism.

How long that will last is the question.

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