Working With the System Didn’t Work For Him

Three years ago, when Phil Fontaine strode confidently in to the Assembly of First Nations’ national conference as a contender for the position of national chief, his rival, then-chief Ovide Mercredi, was everything he was not: Filled with bluster and aggression, Mr. Mercredi had bullied his way on the national agenda, routinely blasting the federal government for various affronts to his people.

But Mr. Mercredi’s tactics – blockades and publicity stunts meant to draw attention to his causes – had become a concern for the chiefs with voting power. While Mr. Mercredi could grab headlines, he had provided little in the way of results – and along the way of results – and along the way, had soured his relationship with Ron Irwin, then the minister of Indian affairs, who eventually refused to meet with him. What the assembly needed, the voters reasoned, was someone who could mend fences with Ottawa.

They found their man in Phil Fontaine. Within 24 hours of his victory over Mr. Mercredi, Jane Stewart, the newly minted minister of Indian affairs, offered Mr. Fontaine her personal congratulations. A new era of native politics in Canada began. But just as his diplomatic grace won him favour in 1997, so too did it prove his undoing yesterday.

While Mr. Fontaine worked as the consummate negotiator, building stronger services for native people and presiding over increased budgets, some natives came to see him as part of the bureaucratic machine, rather than their representatives inside it.

“For some of the First Nations, that kind of talk got them wary, because you’re talking to the oppressor,” said Meo Litman, a professor at the University of Alberta who specializes in native affairs and government.

Alex Roslin, editor of The Nation, a national First Nations affairs magazine, said there were no clear moments in Mr. Fontaine’s career when he could have scored points with his constituents as a hard-liner, through his voice could have been heard more clearly on a host of recent disputes, including last year’s conflict over native rights to lobster fishing in the Maritimes, or when natives in British Columbia argued over logging rights.

Growing fears that the new Canadian Alliance party might have an interest in rolling back native self-government rights were met by Mr. Fontaine not with a public attack, but rather a private meeting between he and then-leader Preston Manning. It came down to a question of style, Mr. Roslin said – the same style that had served as so successful a foil to Mr. Mercredi’s hostility three years before.

“Phil’s argument has been that, because he’s close to the Liberal government, he has access to power and he’s able to negotiate a better situation, but others argue that that’s not the case,” says Mr. Roslin.

“Some people say that the AFN is too focused on administering services to First Nations, or it’s too focused on work related to the governing of First Nations, rather than standing up for First Nations’ rights.”

That ability to stand up for rights became a key element in the victory of his rival, Matthew Coon Come. While Mr. Fontaine built a reputation as a diplomat, Mr. Coon Come became known, Mr. Litman said, “as someone who’s been willing to take on the big boys,” referring to his successful campaign to derail a $7-billion Hydro-Quebec project for Cree ancestral lands in Northern Quebec in 1994.

Mr. Coon Come, a former grand chief of the Quebec Cree, has also taken the plight of Native Canadians outside the realm of national politics, to the United Nations. Mr. Coon Come’s victory appears to have been brewing for some time. Dan Le Moal, who writes for The First Perspective, a national aboriginal newspaper based in Winnipeg, recalls a recent debate between the candidates in the northern Manitoba town of Thompson, where, he says “you could really see the tide shifting.” Mr. Fontaine delivered an eloquent speech that touched on his priorities – of building bridges, of maintaining the momentum in Ottawa.

But it was Mr. Coon Come who stirred the crowd. “Before, it would have been easy to think that Phil had a lock on [the election], but when we heard the debate in Thompson, that kind of changed things. Chiefs were really applauding Matthew, and you could tell that people were really dissatisfied with Phil.

“In the end, he not going to try to upset the system so much as work with it, and some people saw that as a problem.”