Ottawa, the city that fun forgot.
We drive in, call Kenny Blacksmith and ask for directions on how to get to the Assembly of First Nation annual general assembly. We learn it’s being held at Lansdowne Park, home of the Roughriders and the 67s.
We stride into the conference center and campaign posters of Matthew Coon Come adorn every available wall space. His campaign headquarters is bustling. It’s like a scene from the documentary. The War Room. Volunteers at the computers, answering phones, huddling in corners working to get Matthew elected as National Chief. There must be about 20 people crowded into a small locker room.
We move to National Chief Phil Fontaine’s headquarters and there is one person organizing campaign flyers. We ask him when the debate is to begin. He says 7 o’clock and it’s already half past. Indian Time.
We enter the main hall and it is full of chiefs, delegates, volunteers, journalists and conference “ladies.” Along one wall stand people wearing loud red t-shirts that read “Matthew Coon Come First Nations Camp.” Banners are posted up on the wall with a simple, “Matthew Coon Come.”
The speeches begin. Marilyn Buffalo speaks her allotted fifteen minutes. She’s dressed in garish native garb. If she wins we’ll have to look at this outfit for the next three years. Matthew goes to the podium and blasts everything AFN and sets Phil Fontaine’s tone. The National Chief retaliates. He speaks his fifteen minutes, recounting his achievements from his three year term. From the chiefs and proxies’ reactions it’s obvious that the race is between Phil and Matthew. Lawrence Martin, Wapistan, is next to address the room. Always the entertainer, Martin picks up a guitar and sings his greatest hit Watcheeyeh. The three other candidates don’t really know what to make of it at first so they play along. They bop their heads in time to Martin’s rhythm. Martin speaks finally. He begins by complimenting his opponents. “If only we could work together!” he says. “But that’s not the system.” He takes advantage of his final three minutes to sing another song. He’s touched, so to speak, a chord and the candidates rise to hug him. They pose together for the cameras. Round one is over. Matthew, one, Phil, zero.
Matthew and Phil have invited everyone for refreshments and snacks at their hotels. Will and I freshen up, dress for the occasion and hope for free beer and food.
We walk into Fontaine’s party. The food’s all eaten and the drinks, soft, are getting warm. We grab perfunctory drinks and wander the room. “There’s no beer!” we complain to ourselves. We had heard that Phil was into parties. Lawrence Martin is there. The crowd though seems ill at ease. Like they don’t really want to be there. “Let go,” says Will but I refuse. Something’s bound to happen. A woman calls for attention. She tells the gathered that she’d like to sing a song for Phil. She proceeds to belt out an a capella version of “Don’t You Know That You’re My Hero.” Phil practically ignores the serenade. We leave.
It’s a short walk to Matthew’s reception. It’s a serious affair, more political, formal. A chief from southern Manitoba testifies to Matthew’s greatness. Will tells me there are women following us. We have to leave.
We cross the street to the Glue Pot Pub. It’s extremely busy. We sit and wait for service for at least fifteen minutes. The Ottawa Blackneds arrive and join us for drinks. We laugh, we talk, we drink and make merry. A well known APTN anchorperson is at another table and Sam recognizes her and points her out. We tease him and urge him to go and introduce himself. The bar slowly starts to fill up. The candidates’ receptions are ending.
Candidate Marilyn Buffalo walks in and some heads turn. There are no babies to kiss so she shakes a few drunk hands instead and sits at a table not far from ours. Closing time is closing in and I walk to the bar for a final drink. It just so happens that Phil Fontaine’s nephew is stand there passing out wisdom on Phil and yellow neck bands that say Phil Fontaine 2000. I ask for one and tell him I support Phil because he looks mean and tough.
Someone points out mean and tough Gino Odjick, the Algonquin Enforcer. Will rises fearlessly to ask him who he supports. Gino says he prefers Fontaine because he works a lot with the Youth.
Surprise, surprise, Phil Fontaine enters the bar and causes a minor stir. He knows the crowd. He works the room a bit and joins a table. They close the bar and me and Will actually leave early.
We are a bit groggy the next day. It’s election day. There is a buzz in the room. A crowd has gathered around Matthew. The major new organizations are here. The chiefs are voting. They announce the results and Matthew is leading but just barely so they have another vote. Fontaine is putting on a brave face. I shoot him kissing a baby as his entourage cheers him on. People gather outside in the smoking area. An impromptu poll has Matthew leading by a wide margin. Chiefs from as far away as British Columbia say they are voting for him.
Results from the second round come in. The numbers still aren’t enough for a sure winner but Matthew has gained a huge following. The press smell success and hover around Coon Come, waiting. A crescendo builds as Phil Fontaine walks across the room into Matthew’s arms conceding the race. The place explodes.
We are broke and miss the gala. I head over the Glue Pot Pub again. Around closing time Marilyn Buffalo walks in with a tiny entourage. They sing a few sad karaoke songs. She looks defeated.
I head home defeated. Will suggests I should have given Marilyn some sympathy lovin’ and we laugh.