Ian Gill, President of Ecotrust Canada, reports on the election of Canada’s next Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations from the convention in Calgary.

It is often said among traditionalists in First Nations communities that modern society has harmed important rituals like the potlatch. In the old days, potlatches would go through the night, sometimes several nights, until the business of the nation got done. Elders have been known to complain in recent times that potlatches have become too perfunctory.

Well, the elders must have been pleased this week, as Wednesday turned into Thursday in Calgary, and Canada’s native chiefs and their proxies battled through the night to elect the Grand Chief of their Assembly of First Nations. By modern political convention standards, this felt very much like a potlatch of old.

It hadn’t started out that way. Early on Wednesday, A-in-chut, Shawn Atleo, jumped to the front of the first ballot with 238 of 552 votes cast, or 43 per cent of the total. His nearest rival was Perry Bellegarde, with 162 votes or 29 per cent.  Atleo is from B.C., Bellegarde from Saskatchewan. Another B.C. candidate, Bill Wilson, finished last with just 11 votes. He, and Manitoba’s Terry Nelson, were knocked off the ballot. Ontario’s John Beaucage came in third, so the second ballot was headed for a three-way race.

But before that could happen, Beaucage threw his 84 votes to Bellegarde, and Nelson and Wilson also leaned over to the Saskatchewan chief. So the second ballot was a two-way race, and it ended in an effective dead heat: Atleo 276, Bellegarde 272. The third ballot, announced at around 10:30 pm, was even closer, just one vote separating Atleo from Bellegarde. But a simple majority, more to the point two simple majorities, was not enough: AFN rules dictate that a 60 per cent majority is required to win.

Here’s where the intrigue set in. At the B.C. caucus room, an Atlantic chief, Wendell Metallic, arrived to tell the decidedly pro-Atleo crowd that Bellegarde had made a clear promise to the Atlantic caucus that he would drop out of the race if he was not ahead after three ballots. Well, he wasn’t, although he was only one vote behind Atleo.  “Let’s see how honest he is,” Metallic said. Would Bellegarde fold? Should he be confronted and made to justify his remaining on the ballot? Atleo, ever the man of principle, urged calm among his supporters. After a prayer song, Atleo told the caucus not to worry about “what someone might have said,” but instead to focus on “our approach… Let’s go win this.”

And then, another twist. Bellegarde arrived at the B.C. caucus and, after embracing Atleo, who then left the room, Bellegarde told the B.C. chiefs that the statement he had made about dropping out after the third ballot “was not in my purview.” His elders had told him he didn’t have the right to quit. So he wasn’t going to.  “I was told I had no right to say that. I made a mistake.”

It was not a mistake the B.C. chiefs seemed disposed to forgive. Several stood up and demanded to know how chiefs across the country would be able to trust Bellegarde if he so easily went back on his word. But the most powerful moment came when Umeek, Richard Atleo, Shawn’s father and a revered elder, stood up and told Bellegarde that he should take care with what he said, since once words escape “you cannot grab them when they are gone.” As B.C. chiefs and leaders stood several deep behind Umeek in solidarity, he told Bellegarde “our son has abided by the laws. There is no division between his words and deeds.”

But the division among the chiefs was there for all to see just after midnight, when the fourth ballot results came in. Atleo was pegged back to 264 votes, Bellegarde now ahead by a nose at 267, and weary voters were headed for a fifth ballot, since less than a single percentage point separated the two candidates. Shortly after 2 a.m., the fifth ballot had the two candidates tied at 254 votes apiece, with the total number of votes cast gradually falling as the process wound on.

It wasn’t till the eighth ballot, results of which were announced just before 8 am today (Thursday), that Shawn Atleo finally edged just beyond 58 per cent. Bellegarde conceded and Atleo won Aboriginal Canada’s most senior political prize.

Now, Atleo gets to bring his expansive, collaborative vision – and his remarkable erudition and integrity – to the national stage. This is a triumph for him personally. It might turn out to be an even greater triumph for Canada. And it is a huge boost to the conservation economy.