OTTAWA - Pam Palmater essentially launched her campaign to lead the Assembly of First Nations on Twitter.
Word that another candidate, Ellen Gabriel, was going to run spread through Facebook before she could even file the paperwork.
Manitoba lawyer Joan Jack has become a household name among First Nations because of her use of social media.
And the blossoming Aboriginal Peoples Television Network is piping commentary, analysis and, on Thursday night, an all-candidates debate, straight into aboriginal living rooms across the country.
For the first time, regular First Nations people living in far-flung communities across Canada have readily accessible tools for a national conversation about their leadership in Ottawa — turning the traditional discourse among chiefs on its head.
"It has changed it entirely, that's for sure," Jack said in an interview.
The grassroots don't have a vote, but through a growing network enabled by new media, they seem to have a voice.
"It's the new moccasin telegraph," said Jack.
"When you're dealing with a community that has two degrees of separation and not six and you provide a social medium like this, that is relatively inexpensive and accessible to anybody, all of a sudden you've got everybody talking."
About 630 chiefs will be eligible to vote next week on who should be the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations for the next three years. The post is arguably the most powerful aboriginal position in Canada, responsible for advocating on behalf of First Nations, dealing with Ottawa on a regular basis and determining the flavour of the relationship between First Nations and the rest of the country.
In the past, the campaign leading up to the vote has been conducted by phone, in print media and by candidates driving or flying to regional centres and reserves to speak to chiefs.
That's still happening, but now, new media is giving candidates other avenues of communication. Up to 80 per cent of people in aboriginal communities report tuning in to APTN at least once a day. A study shows aboriginal usage of social media to be intense and rising. And increasingly, regular First Nations people are discussing how to assert their rights, improve their standard of living and relate to the rest of the country.
"This is new and it's pushing change in the community," said Jean LaRose, APTN's chief executive. "And it's coming up from the bottom. I'm not talking about an Indian spring here or anything, but it's an interesting shift in the way our politics are happening."
Eight people are contending for the national chief title — including the incumbent Shawn Atleo, four women, two regional chiefs and a Manitoba band chief. At their annual convention in Toronto next week, chiefs will cast ballots until one candidate claims at least 60 per cent support.
But the chiefs have no obligation to listen to the buzz around them, says Russ Diabo, a First Nations policy analyst. He says the grassroots conversation may well be interesting, but it won't change the longstanding fact that the chiefs on the convention floor alone will determine the outcome.
"All this stuff in the lead-up I don't think it really has an impact, except maybe bring up some issues for candidates to respond to," he said. "The real dynamics are going to be in Toronto at the convention centre."
He said Atleo's first-round ballot momentum will be key in determining whether he will prevail.
While there is a lot of discussion about a universal vote that would allow band members a direct say in choosing the national chief, that issue is making very little headway, Diabo added.
The chiefs are elected by their people, he explained, but the AFN is not a government. It is an advocacy group that acts on the direction of the chiefs.
But at least one chief says he is going to take direction from his band members when it comes to casting his ballot next week.
Chief Isadore Day of the Serpent River First Nation in northern Ontario has watched First Nations engagement with new media surge over the last few years. He has also seen APTN become a central point of reference for many of his own members, both those living on and off the reserve.
Twitter and Facebook have become a mainstay for his members to communicate — with him, with each other and with other communities, he said.
Now, with information about the candidates for national chief readily available, he wants his community to take their engagement to the next level and advise him how to vote.
"Social media and technology is definitely improving the ability to access information," he said in an interview on Wednesday. "It certainly provides another level and layer of information that I think voters, as well as the candidates, hadn't had up until this point."
He'll be watching Thursday night's debate coverage intensely, he said, and will consult band members afterwards to inform his voting for next week. He'll offer his own point of view, he said, but will take their feedback into account.
Then, during the convention next week, he hopes to set up a livestream into his community and discuss how to handle the ballots with band members through Twitter and Facebook.
"It's not a system that is fully developed, but at least we're taking the first step here," he says.
He is mindful, however, of the cultural history of First Nations. He does not want to become engulfed in a new mode of communication that would erode the oral traditions of his people.
"We must never forget that our culture is one of oral history," he said. "We will experience a final erosion of our languages if we're not careful and ensure that we have that face-to-face, that we have that kitchen table discussion, that we go out on the land with our kids and our grandkids and we have these discussions. That we shut the BlackBerry off, we leave the iPad at home, and sit down by the lake."