CANADA

A soft-spoken chief

The first nations choose a new leader

DIANE BRADY June 24 1991
CANADA

A soft-spoken chief

The first nations choose a new leader

DIANE BRADY June 24 1991

A soft-spoken chief

CANADA

The first nations choose a new leader

The frenzied campaigning in the corridors of the Winnipeg Convention Centre last week testified to the new prominence of native issues in Canada. Through four separate votes, taken over more than 15 hours, nearly 500 Indian chiefs from across Canada struggled with the question of which of six high-profile candidates should become the next national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). On the first two ballots, the campaign’s acknowledged front-runner, Philip Fontaine, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, held a comfortable lead. Then, in an action caused largely by resentment at the slickness of Fontaine’s campaign—dismissed as “too white for me” by leadership rival Bill Wilson of British Columbia—three of the four leadership candidates, including Wilson, threw their support behind Ovide Mercredi, a Cree lawyer and Manitoba regional chief of the AFN. As a result, Mercredi catapulted into the lead on the third ballot and finally, on the fourth, secured the 60 per cent of the vote needed to win. At 2 a.m. on June 12, Mercredi was officially sworn in as head of Canada’s 600,000 status Indians with a sacred sweet-grass ceremony performed by native elders.

In his early-morning acceptance speech, Mercredi, 45, served notice that he will pursue a tough line in demanding that Ottawa deal

fairly and swiftly with long-standing native grievances. Those include land claims and demands for constitutional recognition of the right to self-government. Declared Mercredi: “When you deal with the Canadian government, you have to be hard.” But in more conciliatory tones, Mercredi added that he would always approach non-native Canadians “in the way in which our ancestors approached them—with generosity.”

That combination of toughness and compassion, said some analysts, best explains Mercredi’s transformation last week from dark-horse candidate into leader of Canada’s largest native organization. “He has a balance between traditional values and political savvy,” said Ethel Blondin, Liberal MP for the western Arctic and a Dene from Yellowknife, N.W.T. Added Marlene Brant Castellano, a Mohawk Indian and chairman of the native studies department at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont.: “He is seen as someone who can be assertive without embarrassing them by being too extreme.” The chiefs are looking to Mercredi to capitalize on the national attention aroused by last year’s native protests over the Meech Lake accord and the 78-day armed confrontation between Mohawks and authorities near Oka, Que. Indeed, both Mercredi and Fontaine were key advisers to NDP MLA Elijah Harper during

his successful bid to derail the Meech accord on the floor of the Manitoba legislature. As evidence of the AFN’s heightened profile, Mercredi’s first task last week was to meet with former Supreme Court of Canada chief justice Brian Dickson, who was appointed last month by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to help set up a federal royal commission on aboriginal concerns. Then, on Friday, Mercredi received a call from Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark asking to meet with national native leaders within the next two weeks to discuss their role and concerns in the current national unity debate. Shortly after taking that call, Mercredi told Maclean ’s that he sensed a clear opporI tunity to make progress on 5 the native agenda. “Clark ins' dicated the urgency of includI ing aboriginal peoples on these issues,” said the soft-

spoken Mercredi. “This is the start of a new era. We all understand the problems, so it’s time to work on solutions.”

The man who will now speak for Canada’s status Indians says that he maintains a strong sense of his native roots. Bom in the traditional Cree community of Grand Rapids, 400 km north of Winnipeg, and raised along trap lines and in fishing camps, Mercredi dropped out of school at age 16 to work as a laborer for Manitoba Hydro. He later returned to school, graduating with a law degree in 1977 from the University of Manitoba. After briefly practising law in Brandon, Mercredi served as constitutional adviser to the Manitoba Assembly of Chiefs in the mid-1980s. He was elected to the executive of the AFN in 1989. Married to Shelley Buhay, a non-native lawyer, he has a nine-year-old daughter, Danielle.

Mercredi made it plain last week that his leadership will follow a course of nonviolence—but will not shy away from confrontation. While Mercredi says that he would never sanction violent confrontations like the standoff at Oka, he maintains that such acts of civil disobedience as roadblocks and demonstrations are legitimate political weapons. Of the AFN’s course of action over the next few months, Mercredi says that “we’re going to borrow some lessons from Martin Luther King and some strategies from Mahatma Gandhi.” The one clear prohibition, he added, is that “no guns will be allowed—if there is going to be any violence, we will not precipitate it, we will be the victims of it.” The native leaders who elected him their national chief last week clearly hope that Mercredi’s quiet determination will prevent the situation from coming to that.

DIANE BRADY with BRIAN BERGMAN in Toronto

BRIAN BERGMAN