After the ballots yesterday at the Shaw Conference Centre in Edmonton, Alberta, were cast, we welcomed a new National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, or should we say former National Chief Phil Fontaine has returned. Fontaine took it on the second ballot, getting 60.9 per cent of the vote. AFN voting rules state that to be National Chief, a candidate must get at least 60 per cent of the vote. On the first ballot,

Phil Fontaine received 52 per cent, Robert Jamieson 30 per cent and incumbent National Chief Matthew Coon-Come received a disappointing 19 per cent of vote of the 566 First Nations Chiefs voting. The election then went to a runoff race between Phil Fontaine and Roberta Jamieson, with Coon-Come throwing his support behind Jamieson. Fontaine ran on a platform of restored relations with the federal government and open negotiations between First Nations and Indian Affairs concerning the proposed Aboriginal Governance Act.

The AFN National Chief is the political liaison between Canadian Aboriginal communities and the federal government. This role has been key ever since Minister Robert Nault introduced controversial new legislation in the form of the First Nations Governance Act. Both Roberta Jamieson and Matthew Coon-Come opposed this legislation as a throwback to the infamous white paper of 1969 that sought to extinguish Aboriginal rights in Canada and throw out the Indian Act. Back then, thanks to efforts of many, including Harold Cardinal, the Indian Nations of Canada united in opposition to the bill and brought forth a Red Paper. The then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau shelved the White Paper and began a forging a new relationship with Aboriginal peoples that would eventually lead to Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution recognizing, affirming and entrenching the rights of Aboriginal peoples in Canada from future extinguishments without their consent.

Then National Chief Matthew Coon-Come and the Assembly of First Nations reviewed the First Nations Governance Act and saw it as a throwback – seeking extinguishments of substantial Aboriginal rights without consent of the peoples it would most directly impact. In a speech in Durban, South Africa, last year at the World Conference on Racism, National Chief Matthew Coon-Come laid it out before the world that extinguishments and gross violations of human rights against Aboriginal peoples were not a thing of the past in Canada but of the present. This was the beginning of the end of his relationship as liaison, as he returned to Canada to find the government had slashed his budget and resources in half.

In the past year and most recently, Minister Nault has made it obvious who he did not want to return as National Chief and implied an ominous message that future relations and funding could possibly suffer.

Chief Roberta Jamieson, Canada’s first Aboriginal woman lawyer, also took a contrary position to the First Nations Governance Act. Instead, she advocated building a nation of strong, young Aboriginal leaders and institutions that are under the control of the First Nations and consistent with their culture and values. Chief Jamieson vowed to continue her opposition to the First Nations Governance Act on Parliament Hill despite the election results. Matthew Coon-Come, when throwing his support behind Jamieson for the second ballot, said that Phil Fontaine’s plan was one of “dependency, of hopelessness” and was akin to Moses leading his people back into slavery.

National Chief Phil Fontaine entered the race saying that “he was concerned over the way that our First Nations issues have become marginalized as a result of the AFN squandering opportunities to engage in meaningful discussion and negotiation.” National Chief Fontaine rebuked the AFN for protesting and confronting the Canadian government – he believes that this is, in effect, “giving up our voice.”

Fontaine’s message was “I learned early on that we must never negotiate from fear but we must never fear to negotiate.”

In his victory speech Fontaine added that “our strength comes from unity.” And he promised to reconcile relations with the federal government, strengthen the Assembly of First Nations and work on the AFN’s overall credibility.