Coon Come Wins AFN Presidency
Ovide Mercredi insisted it was destiny. Speaking to native chiefs in Ottawa last week, the former aboriginal leader told them Matthew Coon Come was fated to become the new leader of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). Preordained or not, hours later Coon Come was duly elected national chief of Canada's most powerful native organization. His victory leaves many natives feeling hopeful - and some politicians undoubtedly wary. Outspoken and savvy, the former Quebec Cree leader promises to adopt a more militant stance with Ottawa than his predecessor, Phil Fontaine. Count on him to do it creatively. In 1990, in his most celebrated protest, Coon Come and a group of Cree and Inuit paddled to New York City to denounce a proposed Hydro Quebec power project. The high-profile campaign eventually helped sink the $13-billion Great Whale project. The memory of that victory loomed large last week. "He has a reputation of being firm on fundamental aboriginal rights," says Romeo Saganash, a senior official with the Grand Council of the Crees, "and that helped him a lot."
Coon Come does seem destined to chart a more combative course for the AFN. He has vowed to embarrass Ottawa before the United Nations if it ignores the staggering social and economic problems on native reserves. And he plans to take on the federal government immediately over treaty rights. Despite the tough talk, the 44-year-old leader expressed hope that confrontations can be avoided. "I think I know when to fight, and when to negotiate," Coon Come said. "I know when to sign agreements."
His victory is the latest in a series of shifts for the AFN. In 1997, Fontaine displaced Mercredi, who had alienated the federal government and some chiefs with his adversarial style. Fontaine adopted a more diplomatic approach, but then some natives, including Coon Come, accused him of being too cozy with Ottawa. As a result, many chiefs lined up behind Coon Come, giving him 50 per cent of the vote on the first ballot. When he neared the required 60-per-cent support after the second vote, Fontaine conceded defeat.
Married with five children, Coon Come hunts, fishes and traps whenever time allows. Born in northern Quebec, he - like thousands of other aboriginal children - was sent far from home to attend residential schools. He studied law at Montreal's McGill University, but left school for band politics. In 1987, he was elected grand chief of the Northern Quebec Cree, a position he held for 12 years. However, it was the battle against Hydro Quebec that vaulted him to national prominence. "He is a most formidable opponent," says John Ciaccia, a retired Quebec Liberal cabinet minister whose portfolios included native affairs and energy.
A multitude of issues await Coon Come's attention - perhaps an almost insurmountable number. "The challenge is almost an impossible one because he's leading an assembly of chiefs of more than 600 first nations who find themselves in tremendously diverse circumstances," says Moe Litman, a law professor at the University of Alberta. "I think that it's a real tightrope he has to walk." Kathryn Teneese, a member of a B.C. umbrella organization involved in negotiating native land claims, agrees Coon Come inherits a large constituency. But his role complements existing aboriginal bodies. "We see the AFN as being the door opener," says Teneese. "The challenge is as much ours as it is his."
Still, aboriginals will be closely watching their new leader. "We need someone who will give pride to people in communities," says Armand Mackenzie, a Quebec Innu lawyer. "We have to be inspired." Inspiration and aspirations: Matthew Coon Come steps up to the national stage with heavy expectations on his shoulders.
Maclean's July 24, 2000