Matthew Coon Come is running for National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations on a platform that’s certain to put some noses out of joint.
He says the AFN “has been bought” and is failing to give First Nations a voice in Canada. He says the group needs new strategies to advance Native interests.
And he says he supports changing the AFN’s election rules to make the National Chief elected by the people, not just the chiefs.
The next National Chief will be elected on July 12 in Ottawa by the AFN’s 633 member chiefs.
“I believe there is no voice,” said Coon Come in an interview from Saskatchewan, where he was meeting with the province’s chiefs.
“I get asked the question, did we agree to be silent? When did we decide we would not speak out on our issues? There is a social time-bomb out there that warrants a real voice that’s lacking across Canada,” he said.
He said Native people are frustrated with the AFN: “There is a large group of First Nations people who are saying there is no voice, that the AFN has been bought and is siding with the government. It’s very clear there are questions about the way the AFN has behaved.”
Coon Come was elected as Grand Chief of the Quebec Crees at age 31. He held the job for 12 years. Before that, he was chief in Mistissini and helped implement the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.
He was born and raised in the bush until the age of 6, when he was taken to a residential school.
Apart from waging a successful international campaign to stop the Great Whale hydro-electric project, Coon Come was also known for his stand during the Quebec sovereignty debate in defense of the right of First Nations to decide for themselves whether to follow the province out of Canada.
He was also active at the United Nations working to strengthen international indigenous rights.
Coon Come has received many honours and awards, including an honourary doctorate from Trent University, where he studied as a young man, and a National Aboriginal Achievement Award for his work on environmental issues. Married with five children, he also has a black belt in karate.
Coon Come said he’d make Aboriginal rights a priority at the AFN, instead of just focusing on delivery of services and programs.
“Just receiving programs and services for our people is an acceptance of administering your own poverty. You don’t have a say in the policy that’s being applied to you,” he said.
Coon Come also said he’d take the government to task on problems like housing shortages, resource destruction, ignored treaties, unemployment, suicide and other social issues.
Creative new strategies are needed to advance First Nations interests, he added. “It is a form of insanity to continue doing the same thing over and over again, and expect different results.”