With a mix of platitudes like “no new taxes,” spins such as “I didn’t inhale” and lies like “I didn’t know anything about it,” the world of politics is somewhat of an enigma. People can’t help but feel a general mistrust for those who have not lived up to their election campaign promises. But still we hope because there are some political leaders who have earned the respect of people around the world, including Pierre Elliot Trudeau, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Phil Fontaine.
I had the chance to speak with Fontaine one day in 1999 after finishing university, jobless and directionless. He asked what my goal in life was and I told him that when I was younger, I had wanted to end apartheid, but since that was over, I didn’t know. He looked at me seriously yet with a smile and simply said “but apartheid isn’t over”.
That comment has stuck in my head as a sort of beacon and I have followed his career from afar with a critical eye. One can read background material about him and get a feel for who he is but that won’t tell you what he’s doing on Parliament Hill. And while a history lesson on the AFN can be very informative, it also doesn’t answer the question of what the National Chief is doing for the people he is said to represent.
Despite being well respected by many, there are many others who have expressed doubts about the current National Chief: that he’s too cozy with the federal government, that he’s too soft, that he’s not Native enough, that he’s not confrontational enough, that he’s spending too much money, that he’s not asking for enough money, etc. So I went to Ottawa to observe Fontaine in his AFN habitat for one day to see what he’s doing.
It was Monday, February 2nd, the day of the Throne Speech and much activity was afoot. There was a lot of interest in AFN and First Nations reactions to the speech from both mainstream and native media. Chiefs from across the country were in town as a show of support, some requesting private meetings, plus there were other organizations and individuals showing up at the office, hoping to speak with Fontaine.
The modest AFN headquarters is situated on three floors in an unassuming building just to the east of Parliament Hill. The National Chief receives guests in his office, which is also a conference room. Off to one side there is an oval table with 10 seats; in the back is a simple desk with telephone and a small wall cabinet; and as you walk in, you pass a couch and television. On one wall are framed eagle feathers with notes of thanks from Chiefs, the signed AFN National Chief oath hangs facing the desk and three other walls have First Nations artwork on them. It is a bright, pleasant office that serves its purpose without any superfluous decorations or extravagant furnishings.
The first meeting was with representatives of the Aboriginal Nurses Of Canada organization. They wanted to know if Fontaine had any ideas for how they could continue to work together. Fontaine noted some of the positive and negative things, including the $2 billion recently transferred to each province for health care and the fact that the Romanov report had not one reference to Native health. After about 15 minutes, the reps were put in the care of the AFN Health Secretariat to hash out some details.
Two members of the AFN staff then came to discuss upcoming plans and meetings, website ideas and the throne speech. The AFN was given some insider information from allies on Parliament Hill as to what the speech would contain. Not want ing to burn bridges with any allies, there was a lot to consider regarding the response to the speech. Afterwards, I had the chance to read an open letter to all First Nations people from Fontaine that was printed in Aboriginal Times, where he says: “I make no apologies for a willingness to work with governments, business, industry, non-governmental organizations or international organizations – any group that can assist us in moving forward…I am committed to using all avenues to effect real change and obtain real results.”
He then met with chief Stewart Paul of Tobique First Nation of New Brunswick, who wished to discuss the throne speech and the situation in his community. He told of how his community was already $15,000 over budget for repairs to houses because of an outbreak of mould. He asked about lobbying for forgiveness of Native debts, pointing out that the government had forgiven a $1.75 billion debt to Iraq but was banging down the doors of First Nations for repayment of much smaller debts that were the result of underfunding to begin with. Fontaine told the Chief that there was someone in the mix who was going to be lobbying for this and asked to speak with him later in private.
Private meetings with staff followed. An hour later, as we walked to Parliament Hill, Fontaine was visibly impressed after meeting with a Native rocket scientist who had invented a cooling system for NASA’s spaceships. It’s an achievement the National Chief wants to build on for the future, pointing out that there are so many outstanding people in First Nations communities and it is them who push us all forward.
For the speech in the Senate, Fontaine sat with the presidents of the Metis National Council and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, (the national Inuit organization in Canada) in a show of solidarity and support. After the speech came the media scrum, where local and national media scrambled to catch reactions to the speech. With a few last-minute notes from his communications advisor, a CTV interview was first. They clipped a microphone on him, patted his face with translucent powder and counted him down to a live feed. From there it was over to another live interview, a taped one with CBC, radio people then swarmed him for 10 minutes and a final interview with APTN.
The same questions were asked: how he felt about the speech, what was lacking, what was pleasing, is he optimistic, how does he feel about the new Prime Minister, etc. He answered each question with poise, patience and careful thought. Not once did he become flustered, upset or angry.
After it was over, Fontaine feared he had forgotten to mention that what was in the speech was the result of much collaborative effort on the part of the AFN staff and their allies, (which he did mention in at least one interview I overheard). His advisor assured him he had done a great job. On the way out, many senators and MPs stopped Fontaine just to say hello. He also ran into Six Nations Chief Roberta Jamieson, whom he beat last summer for the position of National Chief. The two talked, laughed and shook hands.
It was 6:30 pm when Fontaine returned to the office. Despite wanting to go to the gym, and looking very tired, he called in the experienced senior staff of the AFN to have a debriefing and go over the next plan. He thanked me for coming and told me to come back any time.
His average workday is 14 hours and includes weekends. Other things that he does, I’m told, include reading newspapers and other media containing First Nations content every morning: trying to get meetings and meeting with anyone who wants to and can help the First Nations: visiting First Nations communities across the country, asking what they want and need from the AFN; returning phone calls and reassuring people that there will always be hope.
I asked him only one “interview” question at the end of the day. Why? Why do this I asked, when the hours were so long, there was so much pressure, so little glory and not much money. He looked at me with a somewhat confused look on his face, as if I’d said something funny or obvious. “It’s worth doing. What we do here affects so many people. If we do our jobs well then it means good things for the people we represent. We can’t be mired in thinking that things are so bad or so desperate that there is no way out. If I believed that things were so bad then I wouldn’t be in this business.”
And with a questioning nod of his head, checking to see that I understood him, that was all he would say about it.