One year after his election as National Chief, Matthew Coon Come passed the toughest test of his leadership last week in Halifax. The annual general meeting of the Assembly of First Nations provided the opportunity for Coon Come’s detractors to challenge his ability to lead effectively, but the National Chief won unanimous approval from his colleagues and the AFN passed a tough resolution to deal with the hot topic of governance.
Some chiefs had called for Coon Come to resign over a controversial remark he made about the sobriety of some Native leaders. There had also been dissension in the ranks over reforms being proposed by the National Chief, including a commitment to see every First Nations person given the power to elect the national chief. While Coon Come embraces the idea of one native – one vote, that move would take that power away from the chiefs.
With so much grumbling on the sidelines, there was worry leading up to the three-day assembly as to whether anything would actually get done. In light of the understood need for unity among the more than 600 chiefs across Canada to oppose the recent governance initiative launched by Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault, the Halifax meeting was an opportunity to either heal the wounds or make them worse.
Coon Come had been criticized for trying to gather support for the First Nations institutions initiative. The plan involves a wide range of measures aimed to alter the means by which the Assembly of First Nations receives federal funds. In a letter sent to Aboriginal leaders on July 3, Coon Come said that the plan, “inspired, led and controlled” by Natives, was geared to provide “essential financial tools and services for First Nations.” Some of the opposition to the initiative came from Larry Sault, Grand Chief of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, who expressed concerns over the plan being linked to an unpopular government financial proposal. Sault feels that an endorsement of the Native plan by the chiefs would play into the hands of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, who seek to revise the Indian Act. While reforms suggested by Coon Come were intended to strengthen Native control over their own finances, it was feared that government reforms that claim to prioritize native self-determination are actually aimed at ridding the government of its current responsibilities towards aboriginal communities.
By the end of two days of debate, the Native delegates managed to arrive at a consensus on how to deal with proposed changes to the Indian Act. It was decided that Minister Nault would be issued an ultimatum in which the Chiefs give him “30 days to do the right thing and join us,” said Coon Come. Nault has been actively trying to get Native leaders to agree to take part in a government-led consultation process, with little success. Now the chiefs have turned the tables and are inviting the government to participate in Native-initiated talks. The strategy took root and the resolution passed almost unanimously. Considering the cracks in the armour that seemed so apparent before the Halifax meetings, the results of the assembly would have to be considered a major political victory for Coon Come personally, and the AFN as a whole. A strong united front was forged and the path for Native leaders would appear to be considerably less murky than it had been. The AFN is now prepared to take action if the government fails to respond within 30 days. “We’ll block the highway from Prince Edward Island to Vancouver,” said Chief Lawrence Paul of the Millbrook First Nation in Nova Scotia.
“We challenge the minister,” said Coon Come. “After 30 days we’ll see. If he tells us to take the highway, then is he inciting something? Is he endorsing what we’re going to do? But we’ll cross that bridge and we’ll stand on those highways if we have to, I have stood on highways before why shouldn’t I now?”
In response to the AFN resolution, Minister Nault stated that he looked forward to working with the AFN in “an atmosphere of respect and mutual understanding.” The minister also said that “National consultations will go forward as scheduled. First Nation peoples and Chiefs who have already participated and who plan to participate in consultations have been and will continue to be the backbone of this process.”
After the resolution had passed National Chief Coon Come apologized for comments he made at a health conference earlier this year about the poor example being set by some chiefs drinking and smoking. “I may have stated certain things that hurt people’s feelings and if I did that, if I have offended any of our chiefs, then I apologize.”