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First Nations chief to be elected in December at a special chiefs assembly in Winnipeg

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Delegates listen to proposals dealing with the election of a national chief as native leaders from across Canada attend the Assembly of First Nations' 35th annual general meeting in Halifax on Tuesday, July 15, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

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Delegates listen to proposals dealing with the election of a national chief as native leaders from across Canada attend the Assembly of First Nations' 35th annual general meeting in Halifax on Tuesday, July 15, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX - A new chief for the Assembly of First Nations will be elected in December as many aboriginal leaders agreed Tuesday there is a growing need to ensure native issues don't fall off the national agenda ahead of a federal election next year.

Many of the hundreds of chiefs at the annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations supported a motion to choose their leader at a special chiefs assembly in Winnipeg, saying issues including education and aboriginal title need to be raised with the federal parties as they prepare for the October 2015 vote.

"We really need a national chief to deal with the current government of Canada, to deal with Stephen Harper and to get ready for the federal election that will be coming," Roger Fobister, chief of Grassy Narrows First Nation in Ontario, told the meeting in Halifax.

"We need someone to talk to the opposition, Justin Trudeau, to see if he's really a government in waiting."

Wilfred King, chief of Gull Bay First Nation in Ontario, echoed that position.

"There are too many important issues at stake here," King said. "The organization as a whole requires someone at the helm to help guide and direct us."

The Assembly of First Nations has been without a leader since Shawn Atleo unexpectedly stepped down in May amid criticism for his support of proposed changes to federal legislation related to aboriginal education. The federal government has since put the policy changes on hold.

The motion that passed Tuesday will see the next leader serve a mandate of 3 1/2 years.

Chief Wilf Adam of Lake Babine Nation in British Columbia spoke about the need to have a strong national voice following last month's groundbreaking Supreme Court decision to grant aboriginal title for the first time in Canada.

"It's important that we have a national leader, especially at this time, especially when we have a very important case that was won," said Adam.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously to award 1,700 square kilometres of territory to B.C.'s Tsilhqot'in First Nation, providing long-awaited clarification on how to prove aboriginal title. The ruling also formally acknowledged the legitimacy of indigenous land claims to wider territory beyond individual settlement sites.

Ghislain Picard, regional chief for Quebec and Labrador, said he is considering running for national chief although he has not made a final decision.

"To me, what I was looking at was an election not too far in the future," said Picard after the vote.

"Many chiefs are expressing the need to review the structure of the AFN, as a body, how it operates and the changes that are needed in order to function in such a way that it is more responsive to the reality of our First Nations."

Resource development, fisheries and the high number of murdered and missing aboriginal women are among some of the other issues that will be discussed at the three-day meeting, which concludes Thursday.

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