By now everyone knows that Phil Fontaine has been elected – for the second time around – as leader of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).
The easy part is over for Fontaine, now he must get down to the nitty gritty of leading an organization that faces many challenges.
The first, and most critical, is the First Nations Governance Act. Criticized for his stance, or lack thereof, on Bill C-7, Fontaine made his stand clear in a press release categorically opposing the legislation a couple of weeks before the election.
“Long before the AFN took position on this, I told a forum at Queen’s University that if the government wanted to amend the current legislation of the Indian Act, that First Nations had to be in control of the process or it would not work,” Fontaine stated.
The election of Fontaine represents a changing of the guard, but also a return to the tried and true. A large majority of the 633 chiefs eligible to vote seem to have grown tired of Mathew Coon Come.
Coon Come’s stance against Bill C-7 was defiant, and he was respected for it. But many considered his stance on other issues to be too strong. There seemed to be no room for open dialogue, and this ultimately led to his demise.
The defiance continued when Coon Come threw his support to Roberta Jamieson, leader of the Six Nations Mohawk reserve. Jamieson drew a respectable, almost 40 per cent share of the chiefs’ votes, almost denying Fontaine a conclusive result (since national chiefs must gain 60 per cent to win). Had she won she would have become the first female leader of the AFN, and the first Mohawk to boot.
Alas, this was not meant to be. But don’t rule her out for the future, if Fontaine hasn’t lived up to expectations.
Fontaine says he will make the AFN relevant again. But to do that will require big changes in the way the assembly is constituted. Universal suffrage among all eligible First Nations people would givè the organization far more credibility in its struggles with Ottawa.
Secondly, the AFN’s funding comes directly from the federal government. Again, this is something which doesn’t bode well for the AFN’s image, or their ability to fight their employers.
Those are the two main reasons why the AFN has difficulty in proving its “relevance.” The AFN is essentially a glorified lobby group. With limited power, a controlled budget, and elected by a handful of chiefs, the AFN’s legitimacy has always been in question.
Another issue Fontaine hopes to resolve is implementing treaty rights and fiduciary responsibility for housing. He claims to want to establish a comprehensive housing policy, and do something about the 8,500 houses which are needed “nation-wide.”
But isn’t that what the chiefs of each community are there for? Shouldn’t they take care of their own backyard? They get paid enough to do just that, so why rely on a national chief?
In the past, Fontaine has been accused of kowtowing to the federal government. That was one of the reasons he had fallen out of favour three years ago. Now that the honeymoon with Coon Come is over, Fontaine once again appears to be the flavour of the month, at least for now. But as Coon Come learned, the flavour fades, and the taste left in peoples’ mouths may prove to be more bitter than sweet.