Matthew Coon Come was elected the new national chief of the Assembly of First Nations yesterday, heralding a new age of confrontational politics between Canada’s natives and the federal government.
Mr. Coon Come, 44 ran a campaign attacking incumbent Phil Fontaine for his comfortable relationship with the governing Liberals, saying he had become too cozy with Ottawa. It was a charge that resonated with chiefs, who gave Mr. Coon Come 50 per cent of the vote on the first ballot and 58 per cent on the second, forcing Mr. Fontaine to concede the race.
The changes should come soon. After a period of relative calm in the relationship between Ottawa and the AFN, Mr. Coon Come won by promising to force native issues onto the government’s agenda.
He has said the federal government’s apology over the treatment of natives at residential schools didn’t go far enough, and that he will push for a system of investigation of abuses that would be along the lines of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He would like a national revenue sharing agreement – such as the one he signed as Grand Chief of the Northern Quebec Cree – for all natural resources projects on native lands.
He has promised to embarrass the federal government before the United Nations if it fails to deal with the brutal social and economic conditions on reserves.
Yesterday, clad in a buckskin-trimmed jacket over a golf shirt emblazoned with his campaign logo, he promised in his acceptance speech to take Ottawa to task immediately over the treaty rights.
“We are denied our proper voice in our own land,” he said.
“I want Canada to respect the rule of law. I want Canada to respect its own laws. I want Canada to respect the treaties it has signed with us, for they are also the rule of law.”
However, Mr. Coon Come rejected suggestions that he would turn the AFN into a radical group.
“I think I know when to fight, and I think I know when to negotiate, and I think I know when to sign agreements. We need some good cops and bad cops. I’m willing to be a bad cop sometimes.”
Observers say the AFN will be a very different political organization with Mr. Coon Come as national chief than it was under Mr. Fontaine.
“It will be more like the Ovide Mercredi days. More blockade-type scenarios. It’ll be a different dynamic,” said Bernd Christmas, an observer from Cape Breton’s Membertou band. “It’ll be an in-your-face attitude with government.”
During his term as AFN leader Mr. Fontaine obtained a long-awaited apology from the federal government for the treatment of natives at residential schools as well as a $350-million healing fund.
Mr. Coon Come’s victory was effectively sealed about 15 hours before the vote results were announced, at about 2:30a.m. yesterday.
Mr. Mecredi, a former national chief and a long-time rival of Mr. Fontaine, delivered a impassioned speech to a roomful of chiefs gathered at the Delta Hotel in downtown Ottawa. He told them it was Mr. Coon Come’s destiny to succeed Mr. Fontaine as national chief, and that it was important to the future of Canada’s native bands that he be allowed to fulfill that destiny.
When Mr. Mecredi finished speaking, a procession of previously undeclared chiefs entered the room from the back. One by one, they publicly avowed their support for Mr. Coon Come.
“It was a powerful moment,” said Armand McKenzie, a member of the Innu of Northern Quebec. “The chiefs were moved.”
Instead of the narrow win for Mr. Fontaine most observers had expected, the shift in support allowed Mr. Coon Come to become the first Eastern chief elected to the top post at Canada’s largest native organization.
A member of the Mistissini Cree Nation in Northern Quebec , the combative Mr. Coon Come rose to national prominence during the 1990s by fighting the multibillion-dollar Great Whale hydroelectric project to a standstill. He eventually secured a revenue-sharing deal with the province for all future natural resources projects on Cree land.
He has also long been a thorn in the side of Premier Lucien Bouchard, holding a Cree referendum in which 98 per cent voted to stay in Canada if Quebec separated. He later intervened in the federal government’s Supreme Court of Canada reference on the separation issue, ensuring natives would have a say in any post-referendum negotiations.
In a debate Tuesday night, he promised to be a more outspoken advocate than Mr. Fontaine has been.
“There is an impression that is given that all is well,” he said. “Well, not all is well … Since when did we agree to be silent?”
He also promised to make an international issue of Canada’s treatment of natives, and to take court fights to the UN if the Supreme Court of Canada ruled unfavourably.
Mr. Fontaine had said the election was about “maintaining the momentum or starting over.” After the second ballot results showed his defeat to be inevitable, he huddled with his advisers. He could be overheard asking whether he should force a third ballot – 60 per cent is the required threshold for victory – then deciding against it.
“We gave the chiefs of Canada a very clear choice. They made their decision. We have to accept that decision,” he told the circle around him before crossing the convention room floor with his supporters and embracing Mr. Coon Come.
Lawrence Martin, an Ontario chief and Juno-award winning musician, finished third on the first ballot and was eliminated, while Marilyn Buffalo, a past president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, finished fourth with only 13 votes.
After the first ballot, she complained that Mr. Fontaine and Mr. Coon Come had polarized the campaign and ignored the issues. However, she later threw her support behind Mr. Coon Come.
“He’s not going to be afraid to speak out,” she said.
Mr. Martin remained neutral after the first ballot.