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Fontaine returns as AFN Grand Chief

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EDMONTON, Alberta - What was anticipated to be a close three-way race for the Grand Chief of Canada's Assembly of First Nations resulted in a second-ballot win for a previous national chief.

Phil Fontaine returns to lead the AFN, which represents Canada's 633 reserves, after he captured the required 60 percent support during the assembly's annual convention on July 16 in Edmonton. Fontaine defeated first-time entrant Roberta Jamieson while reigning Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, was dropped after the first ballot.

At what was the largest gathering for a national election with 566 bands attending, Fontaine's decisive and quick victory sent a clear message. The AFN preferred the compromising leadership of the 58-year-old Anishinaabe from the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba, who was the AFN's leader from 1997 - 2000, than the confrontational style performed by Coon Come over the past three years.

Addressing more than 2,000 chiefs and observers, Fontaine championed the welfare of First Nations, especially those living on reserves, as his main issue. Citing the recent United Nations survey that has dropped Canada from the first to the eighth-best country to live in the world over the past two years, almost solely because of the conditions faced by rural Natives, Fontaine challenged the country's leaders in government and business for change.

"The poverty of First Nations peoples is an affliction we all share and the cost of poverty is more expensive than the cost to fix it. The wealth you enjoy (resource-based companies) comes from the wealth of our ancestors," stated Fontaine - words that were wildly applauded.

The role of the AFN has recently been challenged and with its $21-million annual budget slashed in half during Coon Come's rule, in part because of his relationship with the federal Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Robert Nault. Questions abound as to the body's relevancy and effectiveness. Fontaine pledged that both the AFN's and First Nations' goals are as important now as they ever were.

"That our inherent right of self-government is not just recognized but made real," Fontaine said, asking for unity among the campaigning parties. "The AFN will honor its commitment with being inclusive. The women, the youth and the elderly will be full participants in what we do."

Closely watching was Jamieson, 50, who said she will continue to lobby in Ottawa, despite the loss. Her credentials included becoming the first woman from a First Nation to earn a law degree in 1976 and now she's Chief of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, the largest populated band in Canada with 21,000 members in southern Ontario.

A strong showing for a candidate without any political experience at the national level, Jamieson tallied 167 votes in the first ballot and 217 in the run-off (to Fontaine's 338 out of 555), just under the 40 percent threshold to continue the process. Stating the chiefs are sending a different message to Canada by electing Fontaine versus either herself or Coon Come, nonetheless, the final 60-40 split shouldn't be dismissed.

"There was quite an outstanding vote for the agenda of a rights-based approach. We'll have to see how conciliatory Phil Fontaine will be and we all heard that he said he was against the Legislative act," said Jamieson, referring to the controversial Bill C-7 before the House of Parliament that's set to overhaul the Indian Act.

In the opening round Fontaine received just over half of the 564 votes cast (two were spoiled) with 292 ballots to Jamieson's 167 and Coon Come's 105. That the incumbent was eliminated so decisively was a national statement that ignored his accomplishments and focused on his character.

Though Coon Come, 47, obtained significant funding for First Nations from the federal government such as $1.27 billion for health care and another $600 million for safe water systems, critics downplayed those efforts. Instead they chastised him for his confrontational approach with Ottawa. Early in his leadership, Coon Come supported a blockade by Natives over lobster fishing in New Brunswick and during a visit to South Africa, Coon Come compared Canada to an apartheid state as to how Indians are treated.

His goodbye speech to the assembly was short, speaking first in Cree. The much-anticipated statement as to who should receive his votes between the remaining two candidates, was answered directly by Coon Come.

"I have no hesitation to throw my support behind Roberta Jamieson." His announcement received a loud roar.

At his subsequent press conference, Coon Come didn't mince words when discussing his opponents.

"Roberta represents rights and she talks about access to resources and revenue-sharing. Phil Fontaine advocates dependency and that doesn't give our kids a dream," he said, then using a Biblical reference about how he perceives Fontaine's direction: "It's like taking our people back to Egypt (from the desert) and going back to where we came from because it was good, when we were taking them into the future."

Coon Come defeated Fontaine in the 2000 election after a third ballot, although it was Fontaine who conceded the race as Coon Come didn't have the 60 percent requisite.

In the past year, Fontaine has remained on the national scene as the Chief Commissioner of the Indian Claims Commission. Prior to his first stint as national chief of the AFN, Fontaine was three-time Grand Chief of Manitoba when he brought to light abuses in residential schools and was active in the debate in the mid-'90s of Canada's Meech Lake Accord which sought special status for Quebec as a province.

There has been some concern with Fontaine's relations with the government, including the ruling Liberal party of Canada that's expected to continue its dominance in the next national election. Fontaine's nephew previously ran for the Liberal Party leadership of Manitoba and Minister Nault publicly endorsed, in so many words, Fontaine before the Edmonton convention. These ties have caused some to believe Fontaine might have too many political connections to be objective as a Grand Chief, a notion he quickly downplays.

"We don't pick and choose what governments we work with," Fontaine said about his history when dealing with both the New Democrats (left-wing) and the Progressive Conservatives (right) in addition to the center-based Liberals. "We're prepared to engage the federal government in this process and we need a new deal. Any decision on Canada's future must involve us."

Fontaine was also the Grand Chief of the AFN when in 1998 he signed a Declaration of Kinship and Cooperation with the National Congress of the American Indian.