Over the next three years, Ovide Mercredi will owe a special debt of gratitude to three supporters. The first is the Saskatchewan chief who, while driving home from last week’s Assembly of First Nations leadership convention in Saskatoon, heard on the car radio that a surprise third ballot had been called and raced back to the convention hall. The second is the Manitoba chief who ran into the polling booth with barely a minute to spare after someone forgot to wake him from a nap. And the third is an unknown chief whose vote proved crucial as Mercredi won a second three-year term as national chief of the AFN by a bare margin of three votes after nearly 16 hours of balloting and political arm-twisting. Not surprisingly, it was a relieved and somewhatchastened Mercredi who stepped up to the podium of the nearly empty Saskatchewan Place hockey arena in the early hours of last Thursday to acknowledge victory over his four leadership rivals. “I have made mistakes, and Pm learning from those mistakes,” he told the chiefs. “I pledge to you to work in harmony, to set aside our differences for the collective good of our people.”
For a man who had become a media darling during his first term in office, who had been widely hailed as the country’s 11th premier and the most powerful native politician of his generation, last week’s bitterly fought leadership contest proved a sobering reminder that the accolades of non-natives mean little in the tightly knit world of Indian politics. Quite the opposite: many of the AFN’s 633 chiefs complained that Mercredi—who played a key role in negotiating the ill-fated Charlottetown constitutional accord—had become entirely too comfortable in Ottawa’s corridors of power. That was just part of the political baggage that the 48-year-old Cree lawyer from Manitoba carried with him into his bid to remain the head of Canada’s largest native organization. Among the other pieces: the revelation, on the eve of the convention, that after registering a $132,000 budget surplus three years ago, the AFN, which represents about 530,000 status Indians, is now saddled with an accumulated debt of $2.3 million.
But perhaps most damaging of all were the frequent complaints about Mercredi’s aloof and sometimes-brusque leadership style. Many chiefs grumbled that they had to make appointments well in advance if they wanted to see him and that, even when they did meet, Mercredi did not take kindly to their advice and direction. Several members of the AFN’s 12member council of vice-chiefs—elected by the chiefs on a
I' have made mistakes and I'm learning'
regional basis—claimed that he failed to consult them before making key decisions. “If he really wants unity,” said Ken Young, a vice-chief from Manitoba, “he is going to have to change his leadership style.”
In the hours following his cliffhanger victory, Mercredi signalled that he got the message. “People say I’m not a good listener and I think there is some truth to that,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s. “I have gotten some advice from people in the past year to listen more before I respond, to allow others to talk. That is a change in my approach.”
But if Mercredi was looking for a quick rapprochement with his critics, some of them signalled, in turn, that he was not going to get it. On the morning after the leadership election, the chiefs were supposed to reconvene for the conference’s key policy session on native self-government. But so many of them either slept in or had already headed home that the session had to be cancelled for lack of a quorum. When it became clear that the debate would have to be delayed, Mercredi, who had participated in a round of media interviews following his earlymorning victory, went to bed. That left the floor open to opponents such as Bill Erasmus, head of the Yellowknife-based Dene Nation. “He told us he would change,” Erasmus told the handful of chiefs who remained at the arena. “He never changed. Who are we talking to? The walls? I don’t know if he’s having backroom meetings or he’s even in the hall, or what.”
Apart from providing a forum for lingering rifts within the AFN, the cancellation of the session on self-government pointed to a deeper problem: the failure of the assembled chiefs to deal with matters of substance. Ottawa has made Manitoba the test site for its most ambitious initiative towards self-government: devolving authority to the local chiefs over federal programs for natives, with the eventual aim of dismantling the widely despised department of Indian affairs. The Manitoba experiment, and others like it, present a clear challenge to the AFN and its national leader, who has always stressed the need for a concerted effort by native leaders to convince the federal and provincial governments to pass a constitutional amendment enshrining the inherent right of native people to self-government. Phil Fontaine, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, who lost his own bid for the AFN leadership to Mercredi in 1991, admitted that the Manitoba initiative is a source of some tension within the organization. “He [Mercredi] upports it,” Fontaine told Maclean’s, “but he wants it to be a national process.”
The unresolved debate over self-government is just one of the immediate challenges facing Mercredi. In his victory speech last week, he vowed to be a vocal participant in any referendum on Quebec independence. “I want to say to the First Nations in the province of Quebec,” he said, “that we all share your mission for protecting your people . . . regardless of what happens in the future in respect of Canadian unity.”
But in that, as in many other areas of native politics, Mercredi will speak in the voice of a perpetual outsider. Bom in the northern Manitoba community of Grand Rapids, Mercredi has never lived on an Indian reserve—the home base for about two-thirds of the AFN’s members. Because his Cree mother married a man of mixed ancestry, she was stripped of her status under the Indian Act. As a result, the family could not live on the Cree reserve; instead, his father trapped and fished outside the reserve’s boundaries.
While Mercredi dropped out of school at age 16, he later returned, graduating with a law degree from the University of Manitoba in 1977. Seven years earlier, he had married Beryle Taylor, a non-native teacher on the Grand Rapids Cree reserve. The couple had two sons and a daughter before the marriage ended in divorce in 1977. (In March, after years of complaining that Mercredi had frequently failed to provide adequate child support, an Ontario judge ordered the AFN leader to pay Taylor about $30,000 in retroactive payments.) Mercredi later married Shelley Buhay, a non-native lawyer. The couple have one child, 12-year-old Danielle.
Following his surprise victory over Fontaine in 1991, the articulate, soft-spoken Mercredi became an instant media star. In the wake of the 1990 armed uprising by Mohawks near Oka, Que., and in the light of ongoing negotiations towards a constitutional accord, native issues had assumed an unaccustomed prominence. Columnist Douglas Fisher compared Mercredi to the biblical Joshua, toppling the walls of Jericho; Chatelaine named Mercredi one of the 10 sexiest Canadians; and he appeared on a Maclean’s cover in full traditional headdress in March, 1992, the emerging champion of native self-government.
But for Mercredi, the bubble burst dramatically in the fall of 1992 over his role in negotiating the Charlottetown accord, which would have set a time frame for recognizing native self-government in the Constitution. After boldly declaring that he would have no trouble selling the deal to his people, he watched glumly as more than 60 per cent of natives joined the majority of other Canadians in rejecting the accord in a national referendum.
Mercredi’s identification with the failed accord haunted him during the recent AFN election—and may be one reason why he had to claw out such a narrow victory over much less prominent challengers: runner-up Wally McKay, chief of the Sachigo Lake band in northwestern Ontario; Mike Mitchell, former Grand Chief of the Akwesasne reserve near Cornwall, Ont; Konrad Sioui, a Huron from Quebec; and Delia Opekokew, a Cree lawyer from Saskatchewan. Many AFN members had complained that they had not been consulted enough on the deal Mercredi had reached with the first ministers. Significantly, that was the one criticism that Mercredi flatly rejected following his re-election. “We had one of the most democratic processes ever,” he said. “If I was to do it over again—I would do it the same way.”
In most other regards, however, Mercredi struck a much more contrite note, vowing to involve the chiefs on a regular basis in collective action against Ottawa. “Please come and help me,” he said. “I need your help.” Given the personality and policy rifts that continue to plague the AFN, he could only hope that his pleas did not fall on deaf ears.
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