Phil Fontaine had every reason to look haggard and humble as he donned his ornate feathered headdress last week to become the new national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. It took four ballots and 17 hours of voting, but even then the Manitoba native leader did not have enough support at the annual AFN meeting in Vancouver to usurp his old rival Ovide Mercredi and become the voice of Canada’s First Nations. So there was compromise, a rare thing in the rough-and-tumble world of Indian politics. With electoral officials ready to call a fifth ballot, Fontaine, the grand chief of Manitoba, and British Columbia aboriginal leader Wendy Grant-John, who had edged out Mercredi for second place, struck a deal: she would concede defeat if Fontaine agreed to back a group of B.C. chiefs locked in land-claims negotiations with the province. At 2 a.m., Fontaine finally walked onstage as the victor. “The need is to restore and reorganize and revive the AFN,” he said in his call for unity. “There is a need to open doors and build bridges.”
Last week’s draining leadership contest was at least a start at a new beginning. Just two months ago, Mercredi, who beat Fontaine in a bitter 1991 contest, reversed his vow not to seek a third term in the $85,000per-year post. But by then he was a spent political force—his credibility within the native community diminished, his organization marginalized in Ottawa where his hardline “all-or-nothing!! approach to native sovereignty alienated the government. Now, the faces, at least, have changed: Fontaine, a pragmatist with an affinity for small steps rather than broad, ambitious reforms, should be able to find common ground with Jane Stewart, the new federal Indian affairs minister, who seems to share his incrementalist approach to problem-solving. “I plan to take my cue from the assembly and its leader,” she told Maclean’s. “My role is not prescriptive, but to work in partnership with the assembly and other native people to find solutions.”
But getting to the negotiating table is one thing—getting action is another. And Fontaine knows that he must win over not only Ottawa politicians but his own skeptical people. It is an unhappy time to be the head of the AFN. The organization is $1.6 million in debt. Last month, federal officials told Indian chiefs that Ottawa would cut off the AFN’s annual
core funding of $2 million if the organization does not clean up its auditing practices. Meantime, the drumbeats of native anger grow louder: band members complain about financial and political corruption by their leaders; young people, who make up more than half of the native population, say they are being ignored by an uncaring federal government and ineffectual elders. “Most of us have nothing to lose, so we will do what we have to to have our voices heard,” says David Dennis, 22, a native activist who lives in Vancouver. ‘Violence is inevitable and unavoidable.”
So, it seems, is a hardening of white attitudes towards native militancy. Last week, a British Columbia Supreme Court judge handed out tough prison terms to 13 native protesters who traded gunshots with the RCMP during the 1995 standoff at Gustafsen Lake. The sentences—which ranged from six months to 4 */2 years—ended a 10-month trial that resulted from the occupation of ranch land in the B.C. interior by a small fringe group of natives and their supporters who claimed the land was sacred and had never been ceded to the Crown. Last month, natives were outraged when an Ontario Court judge sentenced Ontario Provincial Police Sgt. Kenneth Deane to just two years less a day of community service after he was found guilty of criminal negligence in the shooting death of native demonstrator Dudley George. George was killed in September, 1995, when police attempted to remove protesters who had occupied Ipperwash Provincial Park because of a land-claim dispute. Last week, the Crown announced it would appeal for a tougher sentence. Opposition politicians, meanwhile, called for an inquiry into the role of Premier Mike Harris and his office in escalating the confrontation. The reason: leaked notes from a government strategy meeting indicated that one of Harris’s aides had said that the premier wanted the native protesters “out of the park—nothing else.” (Harris continues to insist that the operation at Ipperwash was in the hands of the OPP)
Six years ago, when Mercredi took office, Canada’s natives seemed destined for real progress. The handsome, charismatic Cree criminal lawyer had a seat at the table in Charlottetown in 1992, when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the premiers tried to rewrite the Constitution and change the face of Canada. But there was no way he could have realized that occasion was the golden moment of native power and prestige. Or that last week, on the eve of his bid for re-election, he would acknowledge in a newspaper interview that he had no victories, social progress or economic gains to show for his six years in office. “It certainly shakes my political thinking about our place in this country,” he said. “I don’t have the same 100-per-cent belief that I can change Canada to accommodate the First Nations.”
To a certain degree, Mercredi has himself to blame. He lost his pipeline to Parliament Hill the moment he dismissed Ron Irwin, the Indian affairs minister in Jean Chrétien’s first government, as “a nobody.” After that, Chrétien refused to even return Mercredis calls. Irwin, a blunt, crusty lawyer from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., simply made bilateral deals with other native leaders and treated the AFN as a toothless lobby group. Although idolized by grassroots Indians, Mercredi before long had alienated many chiefs, who grew increasingly disenchanted when his confrontational approach failed to produce results in Ottawa. Any illusions he held about still having the support of his people were erased last spring by a disappointing turnout when he called for a National Day of Protest on April 17.
Some native leaders at last week’s convention said the day of protest failed because there was not enough time to organize for it. But the task of uniting 633 bands across the country—not only for demonstrations but also to negotiate with Ottawa as one nation—is immense and perhaps impossible. “We are very diverse,” concedes Robert Szelecz, 38, an Alberta Cree who works as a lawyer in Vancouver, and who attended last week’s AFN convention. “Mercredi did as good a job as was possible.” The problems affecting Canada’s natives are certainly grim. Alcoholism, drug use and sexual abuse continue to plague reserves. The infant mortality rate is twice as high among natives as non-natives, the suicide rate among young people is five times higher among Indians than other Canadians and, overall, life expectancy among native men is 68 years, compared with 75 for other Canadian men.
The stories behind the statistics are even more dispiriting. Vernon Labelle was only 19 years old and already an alcoholic when he died one night in June after being hit by a motor home while walking across the Trans-Canada Highway west of Calgary. According to those who partied with Labelle that night on the Stoney Indian reserve, he drank as many as 11 beers before leaving the party. Shortly after his departure, the gathering ended in a stabbing that sent another reserve member to hospital for 24 stitches after he was slashed with a kitchen knife. “A lot of the young people get frustrated— they think there’s no tomorrow for them,” says Stoney elder Bert Wildman.
Since the beginning of the year, eight other reserve members between the ages of 19 and 26 have been buried in the same cemetery as Labelle. It is also the final resting place of Labelle’s father, who died of alcohol poisoning the year Vernon was born. “There’s nothing to do—no programs for young people, no jobs,” laments Wacey Labelle, 18, Vernon’s second cousin. “You get bored, and that’s why people end up committing suicide.”
Things should be a lot better for members of the Stoney band.
Each year, the oil-rich First Nation gets $32 million in petroleum revenues, yet social problems and unemployment are rampant. The Stoney reserve situation received particular attention following a June 26 court ruling in Alberta provincial court. Considering the case of a band member convicted of abusing his wife, Judge John Reilly said he could not pass sentence until allegations of corruption on the reserve were investigated. In spite of the band’s wealth, he noted, there are few social programs to aid residents. He likened the reserve to a “prison without bars” and a “welfare ghetto.” With evidence of political corruption on the reserve similar to that in a “banana republic,” Reilly called on the provincial justice department to investigate. “Fear, intimidation and violence appear to be a dominant part of life on this reserve,” he wrote.
So far, the Alberta government has not acted on Reilly’s charges. But elsewhere in the country, change may be in the air. A group of Saskatchewan Indians calling itself the First Nations Coalition for Accountability is trying to draw public attention to what it sees as on-reserve corruption. “There is no mechanism to compel leadership to follow policies set out by the band members,” charges Tyrone Tootoosis of Saskatoon, one of the founders of the group. “We need a checks and balances system where we can feel satisfied our money and our collective interests are being handled in a responsible and accountable fashion.”
Pressure for change is also coming from young natives—many of them politically astute and media-sawy. They know a level of despair alien to most non-natives. That gives
'Young people think there is no tomorrow'
special urgency to their demand for real input and influence—not just lip service—and to warnings by the most militant that a civil war could erupt among natives if the new leadership does not start listening to all Indians, instead of just the chiefs. “Our leaders have not made a big difference to our communities,” says Vancouver activist Dennis. “Indian youth want to go back to traditional ways—where every Indian has a voice. We are a rebellious movement.”
Fontaine may be just the man to coax them back into the fold. The silver-haired 52-year-old divorced father of two grew up on the Fort Alexander reserve, 128 km north of Winnipeg. He attended a Catholic residential school, where he suffered sexual and physical abuse, before going to the University of Manitoba to study political science. Several stints in the federal Indian affairs department have left him well equipped to find his way through the maze of government bureaucracy. Fontaine is also a wily politician—a former administrator and chief of the Fort Alexander reserve band, where his legal adviser and campaign manager was Mercredi, the man who later defeated him to become national chief.
While Mercredi was an obstinate, uncompromising leader, Fontaine is known as a consensus-seeker and deal-maker. In his victory speech, he announced he would not fight the agreements that Ottawa has been reaching with regional 5 bands without AFN involvement—deals like the one Fontaine himself made in Manitoba to dismantle the federal Indian affairs department in that province. “I am prepared to be conciliatory,” he told reporters after his victory last week. “I am prepared to negotiate. I am prepared to do what is necessary to protect the people I represent.”
Those words may be music to Ottawa’s ears. The first sign that a new era in federal government-native relations could be in the making was a congratulatory call from Chrétien to Fontaine. In an interview with Maclean’s, Stewart, who met with Fontaine for an hour last week after his victory, said Ottawa is putting together a comprehensive plan for implementing some of the recommendations urged by the $60million Royal Commission on Aboriginal People, whose November report the Liberals have been accused of shelving.
Although there is unlikely to be more government spending, as the commission proposed, Stewart said Ottawa wants to revamp the native welfare system, give aboriginals greater self-government and settle existing land-claims negotiations. Of course, those are just promises—and the First Nations have heard promises before. But there was at least reason for guarded optimism in last week’s new beginning.
With DALE EISLER in Calgary and LORRAYNE ANTHONY in Vancouver
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