Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaq from the Eel River Barr First Nation in northern New Brunswick, has thrown her hat into the ring to take on Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), who will face the first challenge to his leadership on July 18.

Palmater, a lawyer and an associate professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, decided to run after The Crown-First Nations gathering in January of this year and at the behest of the grassroots organizations whose voices don’t always reach the more than 600 chiefs who sit in the AFN.

Palmater’s fear is that the AFN’s direction is one of assimilation and not the recognition of First Nations rights to control their own lives, lands and environment. Her platform includes sovereignty and land issues, missing and murdered women, education and housing all of which have suffered under the Harper government. “We need to get back to the core issues, which are land, sovereignty and people. These three issues are what is important all Aboriginals.”

Palmater goes on to talk about political and legal sovereignty and how it’s been eroded over the past few years, how we’ve lost more and more control of our own lives. She talks about the over-representation of Aboriginals in the prison system, the lack of proper care in the child welfare system and the homeless. “With sovereignty, we have a responsibility to act on it and to take care of our people. We have a crisis in our communities, with poor water and housing, violence and missing women and we need to bring all this into the mainstream.”

Part of sovereignty is a return to our roots, which means better representation for Native women within the AFN. “If we look at all the chiefs and band councillors across Canada, we have more women chiefs and band councillors than Canada has MPs. And if the Native women are underrepresented in the AFN than that is something that needs to change, it’s about leading by example,” said Palmater.

“We have to remember how it got that way and that’s because of the Indian Act. It displaced and prevented women from running for office, which is what the colonizers wanted in the first place.” When asked if she would seek an end to the Indian Act, Palmater answered with an emphatic yes!

The continuing theme of the Palmater campaign is about speaking up and being heard. She referenced the late Shannon Koostachin, who drew the world’s attention to the fact that the Cree community of Attawapiskat didn’t have a viable school. “If a 13-year-old girl can stand up and speak out about the injustice being done to her community and many others, then what are we waiting for?”

Palmater underlined the overrepresentation of Aboriginals in the prison system, where correctional investigators have reported consistently about the discrimination faced by Aboriginal inmates that is due to the Canadian government’s policies regarding First Nations prisoners – and even the Supreme Court of Canada has agreed. “Howard Sapers (the Correctional Investigator for Canada), who wrote the report, has been crying about this issue for 15 years, and the problem isn’t decreasing but increasing.”

A better relationship with Canada is what Palmater wants. She’s done with the niceties that the politicians share. She wants fact-based discussions that will lead to reconciliation between First Nations communities and she feels that can only begin with new leadership. “We want Canadians to know that it’s a fact that chronic under-funding of every social program has led to the premature deaths of First Nations by 7 to 30 years. These are conscious choices that the federal government is making and there’s medical facts to prove it.”

It’s these kinds of issues that has brought Palmater into the race for the AFN leadership. She feels that if First Nations children were not First Nations they wouldn’t be suffering from a lack of funding.

“Had my grandmother been my grandfather, I would be running for chief of my community. It’s a fact that the government of Canada has an extinction date for all First Nations and you can look that up!”

Palmater’s message is that until we start talking about the real problems facing First Nations, we will never be able to solve them.

The AFN will choose a new national chief on July 18.