OTTAWA - From the age of five, Shawn Atleo had leadership of his people thrust upon him.
As a hereditary chief in the B.C. First Nation of Ahousaht, he grew up with the knowledge that his community would look to him for guidance.
It irked him as a five-year-old, having his identity decided for him by his family lines. His traditional name, A-in-chut, means "everyone depends on you."
For a while, he thought he would become a chef, and spent some time running a coffee shop in Vancouver.
Now, he embraces the role of politician.
As the incumbent national chief of the Assembly of First Nations running for a second three-year term, he feels the weight of chiefs across the country searching for — or in many cases, demanding — prosperity, dignity and respect for their ancient and complicated rights.
"The consciousness of this history is starting to become well known. So there's a real sense of resilience. We have come through a most unbelievably challenging time where most of Canada has not understood," Atleo said in a recent interview in an Ottawa cafe.
"Now we're welcoming them into this conversation. But make no mistake, we will stand firmly in our rights."
The title for the most high-profile First Nations leader in the country is his to lose.
Atleo faces seven other candidates in the July 18 election, including two regional chiefs and four women. He can claim a strong B.C. base of support, but some long-standing alliances are in flux. And AFN conventions are notorious for last-minute arm-twisting and unpredictable results.
The 45-year-old is running on his record. He has spent the last three years travelling widely, visiting even the remotest of reserves and sitting down with chiefs, councils and regular people.
Atleo is driving a campaign that highlights his ability to bring people together, and his focus on education, youth and empowering local chiefs.
"The next step is to suggest that we can build on that, and take action on our rights and see some progress. It's been far too slow, and it's been challenging for some time. So now it's a real moment of reckoning in our relationship with Canada," he says.
Unassuming and endlessly patient, he is known for listening carefully and fostering compromise — to a fault, according to his critics.
They are narrowing in on his co-operation with the Harper government and his lack of sharp critique.
They point to the joint task for the AFN formed with Ottawa to investigate ways to improve native education, and map a way forward for talks on the very nature of the First Nations-government relationship.
The task force went over old ground and led to minimum funding instead of bold action, they charge. And the joint efforts with the federal government risk taking First Nations down an "assimilationist" path.
To them, Atleo responds that indeed, he co-operated with the Harper government — but on First Nations' terms, to advance the cause of education and treaty rights.
As the national chief, he says he does not actually have any power to make decisions on behalf of First Nations. He can only do what the chiefs give him a mandate to do, "and that was to create the space to open the door."
The door to further progress is now open, he says, but chiefs need to decide this summer exactly how they will handle the opportunity. At a time when Canada is poised for a labour shortage, the federal government sees the rationale of educating a growing aboriginal workforce, Atleo says, and should be persuaded to put forward stable funding to match their words.
That's his calm response on a quiet day. But the pressure is clearly building.
In an open letter last week to former supporter Chief Wallace Fox of the Onion Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, Atleo is clearly fed up with accusations of him caving to the Harper agenda.
"With all due respect, I take strong exception to your recent remarks in the media that I am leading First Nations 'down the path of assimilation'. This is absolutely untrue," Atleo writes, going on to describe how he has to take all the chiefs' points of view into account.
But where Atleo — and the other candidates, for that matter — have no conciliatory words for Stephen Harper is on the environment and the development of natural resources.
For Atleo, the issue is deeply personal.
His reserve was ground zero for the environmental movements protests against clear-cutting in Clayoquot Sound two decades ago. He says he has seen first hand the devastation and destruction of life that comes with disrespect for the environment.
He recalls homes burning, while a bucket brigade poured pails of ocean water over the fire; rivers dying and fish supplies choked off.
And his elders have frequently reminded him that protection of environment is foremost in his responsibilities.
"They'd point to the mountains and the water, and say one day you're going to have to be responsible for caring for the land," he said, referring to his upbringing.
He is scathing in his criticism of the recent changes to environmental assessment and fisheries protection, saying they are "a tremendous, tremendous threat to our peoples."
As the federal Conservatives make natural resource development their priority, First Nations are also finding common cause. They, too, want to develop natural resources, but in a way that protects the environment and that allows them to prosper at the same time.
And unless some kind of way to co-operate is found, the results won't be pretty, Atleo warns. Most of the major natural resource development projects touch First Nations territories in one way or another, he pointed out, so governments and businesses alike need to find a way to incorporate First Nations' rights and concerns into their business plans.
That's not easy, but it's not nearly as hard as going down the road of confrontation, he added.
"First Nations will be on the front lines" if their concerns are not addressed, he said. "It will be the grandparents and the grandmothers standing up for the environment."