Jun 29/98: Fontaine says his way of playing game is paying off


Canadian Press
June 29, 1998
Janice Tibbetts

[S.I.S.I.S. note: The following mainstream news article may contain biased or distorted information and may be missing pertinent facts and/or context. It is provided for reference only.]

OTTAWA (CP) - Phil Fontaine, the soft-spoken grand chief of Canada's most powerful aboriginal organization, says he will continue with his experiment of building bridges rather than blockading them.

After one year as head of the Assembly of First Nations, he says his preference for conciliation over confrontation is paying off handsomely, especially in terms of respect.

Fontaine was elected to replace former grand chief Ovide Mercredi last July on a promise of trying to rebuild the organizations tattered relationship with governments, particularly Ottawa, that resulted in numerous nasty clashes and slammed doors.

Fontaine, former head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, has spent much of the last year decked out in his business suit, sitting down at a table with politicians and business leaders, including Prime Minister Jean Chretien and provincial premiers.

"People wanted change, they wanted bridges built, not just with governments but with the private sector and were doing that and were going to continue in that direction," the 53-year-old Fontaine said last week at a gathering of chiefs in Toronto.

"There's no need to change at this time."

Soon after taking over the assembly's top job, the self-described pragmatist acknowledged his abrupt change to a peaceful approach from Mercredi's feistier style was a gamble that might not sit well with some of the 630 chiefs.

But Fontaine, a former employee of the Indian Affairs Department, cautioned that trying to get along with the establishment does not mean the assembly has become soft.

"One shouldn't take the position that because were conciliatory and co-operative, that we prefer negotiated change, that our position has softened," he said.

"Were as firm in our resolve but were just being aggressive in a different way and its paying off in my view handsomely."

As Fontaine presided over his first annual convention since winning his job, there was only a sprinkling of criticism directed his way.

His proudest accomplishment - securing an apology and $350-million healing fund from the federal government for victims of sexual and physical abuse at native residential schools - has also been his greatest source of grief.

Complaints persisted at the gathering that Fontaine had no business brokering a deal with Ottawa and then publicly accepting it without the approval of his chiefs.

The jabs were particularly cutting coming from Matthew Coon-Come, grand chief of the Quebec Cree and one of the country's most respected aboriginal leaders.

"I have difficulty with the national chief accepting the apology on my behalf," Coon-Come told the convention, echoing the sentiments of many other leaders.

The issue is a particularly emotional one among chiefs since many of them, including Fontaine, were students at the schools set up to assimilate natives into mainstream society.

For the most part, however, chiefs who were interviewed last week seemed to be supportive of Fontaine's style, mainly because he's been getting the ear of Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart.

Mercredi, on the other hand, had a frosty relationship with Stewart's predecessor, Ron Irwin, and the two often battled it out in public.

"I believe Phil Fontaine is on the right track by going to the negotiating table and using that process," said Vernon Roote, grand chief of the Union of Ontario Indians.

"I think its a great accomplishment over one year, especially when we were understood to be a radical, confrontational type of body."

Added Bill Fobister Sr., chief of Ontario's Grassy Narrows First Nation: "I think this is the right way. Before him, we never got anything. He had to start from scratch almost."

But both men agreed Fontaine has to start focusing more on the bread-and-butter issues on reserves. Despite making inroads with Ottawa and business leaders - including bankers - poverty and unemployment among aboriginals is still staggeringly high.

Fontaine agrees, saying economic self-sufficiency is his top priority as he heads into the next two years of his three-year term. Pulling natives out of poverty is the best way to achieve self-government, he says.

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