Three years ago this month, Matthew Coon Come walked into a packed Neoskweskau arena in his home-town of Mistissini to a hero’s welcome. He had just been elected National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations and the pride in the prodigal son was palpable, with the 2,000 or so in the arena on their feet, clapping and cheering, shouting his name. The gala banquet featured sifts of a polar bear rug and a log cabin on the site of his choosing, music, and, of course, tributes and speeches

“When I walked in here, I got to thinking about where I come from, where I grew up, and how I learned a traditional way of life, Coon Come said after taking the stage that was decorated with snowshoes and a teepee. “There was a time in our history when you were made to be ashamed of our culture,” he added, when the Cree were thought of “as drunken Indians. I want to thank our elders forgot being ashamed of our culture and for passing it on.

It was a good performance, full of emotion and message. And the Cree, indeed First Nations people across the country, had high expectations. Not surprising, considering the success Coon Come had enjoyed in four terms as Grand Chief of the Cree. But the expectations were, perhaps, too high.

Everything came crashing back to earth last month, with a first-ballot defeat in the AFN elections, and the return to power of Coon Come’s bitter rival, Phil Fontaine.

So what went wrong? How could things change so fast?

One clue might have been in the remark about “drunken Indians”. The clean-living Coon Come recognizes the damage drink and drugs have done in the past to Native communities and their image across Canada. And he tried to show moral leadership early in his term as National Chief, noting that poor health on reserves is at least partly due to excessive drinking and smoking – and that the chiefs should set the example for their communities. Many in the AFN didn’t appreciate the moralizing.

That incident, and disappointment over a lack of immediate progress on a number of issues, led to a phantom leadership challenge only a year after his election. It was easily defeated, but it appeared to colour the rest of his term, as he swung from virulently attacking Ottawa (as at the Durban conference on racism) to trying to work with the feds, to no avail.

What became clear out of that motion of non-confidence at the 2001 summer assembly (even though the mover and seconder later denied having anything to do with it) is that the Chiefs in the AFN played hard-knuckle politics. And that Coon Come may have had as many enemies working for his downfall at the AFN – certainly many Fontaine supporters among them – as he did in the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.

In Ottawa, Minister Robert Nault made it clear from the beginning he would not work with Coon Come, calling the AFN leadership “dysfunctional.” Nault backed up his assessment by unilaterally cutting the AFN’s budget in half. Indeed, Nault as much as demanded Coon Come be defeated this summer if there were to be any concessions from his department.

That put Coon Come in an impossible position. On one side, he had created expectations with his penetrating rhetoric about gaining control of resource revenues and changing the daily reality facing aboriginal peoples across the country. On the other, he had to work with the feds if he were to meet those expectations. The price from Ottawa was the First Nations Governance Act, legislation that is repugnant to many of the chiefs who elected Coon Come because of its perceived interference with their power.

Another de facto attack on their power was his proposal to have the National Chief elected by all First Nations people across the country. That would have removed his vulnerability to the chiefs, and at the same time given him far greater political legitimacy in dealing with Ottawa. Neither Ottawa nor the chiefs were greatly enthralled with either prospect.

Coon Come can take some consolation from the fact that Nault will not be Indian Affairs Minister in a few short months, and likely won’t be in the federal cabinet at all. Paul Martin will soon be prime minister, and he has already stated his distaste for Bill C-7 – a clear expression of non-confidence in Nault’s prime mandate at Indian Affairs.

So for now, Coon Come should take some time at his new log cabin to reflect on where he’s come – and where he wants to go next. A man of his talents and experience has too much to offer his people, if not for the moment in national politics, to stay quiet for long.