The rumours were flying for weeks, even months. Was Matthew Coon Come going to go for Ovide Mercredi’s job as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations? Ovide had announced he was going to step down when his term expired this summer. Matthew was touted by some as the obvious successor. So we put the question to the man himself…

People have been calling to ask us if you’re running for National Chief of the AFN. Are you?

No. I am not running for National Chief.

What made you decide that way?

I woke up the other day, banged my head and came to my senses.

Were you considering it?

No, I wasn’t really considering it. Other people had wanted me to consider it without asking me what I thought. So knowing these people were serious, my answer was no. I made a commitment to the Crees and I will stay with the Crees for my next term.

At least this must have made you think a little more about what’s going on at the AFN. What do you think about what’s going on there right now? Do you have any views on their direction?

Like any organisation, it has its problems.

I think the AFN would have to assess and identify its priorities. I think it took a gunshot approach… Hey, that’s a good one because I just came from the bush. I even fired a couple of rounds! (laughs)…

I think one has to be more focused and try capture the priorities at the community level. I think the AFN is now seen as being isolated, not in touch with the people’s concerns. I think they must capture the national issues and try getting the Aboriginal angle on it.

I think national unity is important because that will determine the relationship the federal government has toward First Nations. The economy also—when they talk about jobs, jobs, jobs. I feel the people, Canadians, should understand that if you settle treaties and land claims with First Nations, it would dispell the notion of a cloud of uncertainty. No investor wants to come into any First Nations lands knowing they might end up in court for the next two or three years.

If the federal government or the multinational corporations that come into Indian land across Canada consider partnerships or joint ventures with the First Nations that would be affected, then I think it would be stimulating the economy because there will be spinoffs that will go to non-Native communities It depends on the angle you give.

I think there’s some work that needs to be done in that sense of reaching out to the grassroots level, seeking support rather than just dealing with the federal and provincial governments.

There was some controversy when Ovide Mercredi got involved in the Gustafsen Lake dispute. Some Natives occupied his office because of the way he approached it.

There’s more and more of those kinds of disputes. If you were the National Chief, how would you have dealt with it differently?

I think you would have to anticipate how the First Nations at the grassroots feel and that they want to reach out to the National Chief—because he’s lost touch with them. I think those situations can be avoided. Rather than coming into any crisis situation between First Nations and non-Aboriginal peoples and coming in as a hero. You have to do a lot of backroom lobbying with the First Nations so you know what you’re getting yourself into, so you know the situation, and not just jump in and try to be a hero. Sometimes if you get thrown into the spotlight and you don’t know the issues, you can get yourself in trouble.

What about the idea of one Indian-one vote at the AFN? What do you think about it?

Well, I’m a great supporter of that. I think the Crees are way ahead on that. We discussed that in the Cree world many years ago where we felt our membership should decide, and not the chiefs. I’m not sure to what extent that would work. It would require a lot of work. You have over 674 or 675 First Nations communities. It would take a lot of coordination. I’m sure it would cost a lot of money. But I think one would have to begin to work toward that so the people will feel that the AFN is their organisation, that it represents them, rather than right now where it’s just the chiefs who appoint him. That’s the chiefs’ National Chief, you know? That doesn’t help the First Nations.

The federal election is coming up. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about it.

It’s boring! {laughs)… It’s so one-sided. It’s fait accompli. I think there’s a real lack of leadership out there and I think people are fed up with elections and asking why elections are called. I think the Liberals will get in, but when you listen to (Reform Leader Preston) Manning and (PC Leader Jean) Charest, the Bloc Quebecois, there seems to be a lack of leadership or dealing with the real issues.

I think the people are pushing the politicians to deal with the essential issues and they are the driving forces rather than the leaders themselves.

They don’t mention anything about the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples even though its report came out so recently.

That’s not surprising. I think the Assembly of First Nations certainly hasn’t done its job to raise questions with the leaders and the candidates and be in the right position to ask those questions. If you’re not there you can’t ask those questions.

For the Crees, all the leaders wanted to put national unity on the back-burner and it has come to the forefront. That’s good for the Crees because those are issues that deal with Cree rights or Aboriginal self-determination in the context of secession. And the polls that came out indicate we have succeeded in informing the public not just of Quebec but of Canada that there are Aboriginal people and we have the right to choose who we want to associate ourselves with.

The fact that 92 per cent of Canadians outside Quebec support us is very encouraging, and 75 per cent in Quebec. That shows we have done our homework. When we raised the flag three or four years ago, nobody believed the statements we made. We have come a long way in raising the flag and Cree rights and Cree interests. Without having to jump up and down during elections, you still have to be reckoned with, and we have more allies which we didn’t know we had.

But I wouldn’t read too much into the polls. If you were to ask them I’m not sure they would understand what they are supporting.

If you were at the AFN what would you have done differently to bring Native issues onto the election agenda?

There are all kinds of forums. Just looking at the Internet tells you what the candidates are doing and where they’re going to be, where the debates are held. So just show up and ask the question. But if you don’t, well, you’ll still have to be with this government, whoever that government may be. If you don’t raise your issues, they’re not going to raise them.

But I am deeply disturbed by Manning’s comments. I think he certainly does not understand Aboriginal issues. I’ll tell you his background. He was an energy consultant for big energy companies in Alberta. He was advising them against making any kind of longterm agreements with the Lubicon Alberta Indians. Here’s a guy who has supposedly worked with Aboriginal peoples and that’s his view. His experience dealing with Aboriginal peoples is to treat them as equals and give them a local form of self-government. This is a guy who doesn’t understand this is Cree land, 144,000 square miles of land. We occupy every inch of it. We’re not just in little reserves, in little communities.

I also thought he was very anti-Quebec. I never considered ourselves to be anti-Quebec. We were saying we recognized the aspirations of Quebec and their right to self-determination, but do not do it by denying our right. We aren’t into bashing Quebec. I think he’s really bashing Quebec as a whole. As one who lives in Quebec, I don’t like hearing that kind of talk.

Have you voted in an election yourself?

The day I turned 18 I voted. I didn’t know any better (laughs)…

Who did you vote for?

When I go to the booth that’s between me and God.

Are you planning on voting in this election?

Of course I do.

Which candidate do you think is the most suited to the Cree communities, to their views?

Let’s put it this way. I’ve supported Ethel Blondin (Liberal MP from NWT, Dene), Elijah Harper (Liberal MP from Manitoba, Cree), because they are First Nations and I believe their hearts are in the right place. I think they’ve gone a long way in terms of advancing Aboriginal rights inside the decision-making process. I really admire them for their courage. That’s not to say the Conservatives didn’t have their representative. I remember Willie Littlechild. He did a lot of work for Aboriginal peoples.

I’m well aware of the candidate in our area, Mr. Guy St. Julien. He was with the Conservatives; now he’s with the Liberals. But I found him not to be a party guy. I don’t mean in terms of being a party animal (laughs)… But he was always concerned about the region. When he appeared before the committees he was always able to ask the right question to help his riding. I felt he was representing the people within the region. He did a good job.

We have to deal with these guys. They’re not going to go away. They are signatories to the Agreement. We have to deal with them.

Do you think there’s a place for a Cree candidate?

The future rests on those young people and I would hope we wouldn’t restrict them just to stay within the Cree world. The world does not revolve around the Crees. I would hope they would go into federal or provincial politics if they want to. I’m sure the Crees being very close-knit and family-oriented would support that candidate. I’m not sure they would be so concerned with the party they represent. Probably the fact that they are Aboriginal people would encourage them—depending on who they are… If it’s not Neil Diamond from The Nation! (laughter)…

We were already lining up which jobs we all wanted in his Parliament office!

Doesn’t hurt to dream!