FROM THE ARCHIVE

Old pick promises new era in First Nations relations

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THURSDAY, JULY 17, 2003

An Aboriginal leader who pledged to improve tribal relations with Canada's government was elected head of the country's largest First Nations organization on Wednesday.

With 61 percent of the vote in a second round of balloting, Phil Fontaine returned to a post he lost just three years ago. The 338 to 217 tally secured his spot as chief of Assembly of First Nations, which represents more than 640,000 Natives and their governments from British Columbia to New Brunwsick.

Ousted was former chief Matthew Coon Come, a Cree leader from Quebec who has been highly critical of the Liberal Party administration. In the first round of voting at the AFN conference in Edmonton, Alberta, he was eliminated with just 18 percent.

"I feel I got what I deserved," he would later say at a press conference.

Also defeated was Roberta Jamieson, a Mohawk chief from the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario. She was seeking to make history as the first woman to lead AFN but lost with 39 percent of the vote after Coon Come endorsed her for the second round.

Fontaine, who was defeated by Coon Come in 2000, was immediately sworn in as AFN chief yesterday evening. Seen as close to the Liberals, some of whose leaders have called AFN an irrelevant organization as of late, he has promoted a better working relationship with the federal government.

"It's obvious that we have a mandate that calls for us to re-engage and we're going to have to sit down with governments -- particularly the federal government -- and begin some serious discussions on a number of issues," he said in an interview on CTV's Canada AM program.

Aboriginals and the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs have been at odds over a proposed overhaul of the federal Indian Act. Called the First Nations Governance Act, Native leaders blast the legislation as one developed without adequate consultation.

They also oppose changes in the way they are to govern themselves, calling it an intrusion on their sovereign rights. Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault says the new act will ensure greater accountability.

Despite boycotts of consultation sessions and large-scale protests, the Liberal leadership is moving ahead with the reforms. Nault has been accused of picking and choosing which Aboriginal leaders he will work with -- it's usually those who will provide the least resistance, critics note. Nault cut AFN's funding in half, and gave money to newly created groups who support the proposals.

As the new head of AFN, Fontaine, an Ojibwe who served as chief of the Saukeeg First Nation of Manitoba, is charged with leading opposition to the act. To do that, he says the organization has to rebuild its credibility, become more consistent and improve its communications.

AFN consists of the leadership of Canada's 633 federally recognized First Nations bands and governments.

Relevant Links:
Assembly of First Nations - http://www.afn.ca
AFN In-depth, CBC News - http://www.cbc.ca/news/indepth/firstnations/afn.html
First Nations Governance Act, CBC - http://www.cbc.ca/news/features/indian_act.html

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First Nations protest changes in federal policy (04/29)
Aboriginals protest lack of consultation (4/28)
Canadian tribal leaders to meet (07/15)
Indian policy changes opposed (06/18)
Indian affairs overhaul faces delays (6/14)
Consultations halted on Indian policy changes (8/1)
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