Cree Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come is no stranger to a media storm. But when he joined several other Aboriginal leaders in a high profile and controversial meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper January 11, the media frenzy was at a fever pitch.
A YouTube video posted just minutes after Coon Come walked into the Langevin Building on Parliament Hill to join the meeting showed a group of protesting women begging him not to enter. They supported the boycott called for by a hunger-striking Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence.
The plea of these women was for Coon Come to instead stand in solidarity with Spence until Governor General David Johnston was invited to participate in the process. But Grand Chief Coon Come insisted he had to attend because “13,000 Crees want [him] to.”
The Nation spoke with the Grand Chief to get his view on what happened that day and about the impact of the January 11 day of action on Canada’s Aboriginal peoples.
He emphasized that the first duty of the Grand Council of the Crees is to protect and advance the rights of the Cree people. Thus, he said, he has a duty to ensure that any interaction with the prime minister does not harm the gains that have been achieved for the Cree people.
At the same time, Coon Come explained that the position, the demands and the expectations for those who could potentially attend were literally changing by the hour. At one point there had been a consensus for the meeting to take place with Harper.
“Chief Spence and the Idle No More protestors have played a very important role in highlighting the very serious problems facing the Aboriginal people across the country and that these problems must be addressed on an urgent basis,” Coon Come told the Nation.
“So, there was to me a clear opportunity for the Aboriginal leadership to put demands on the table that could result in a fundamental shift in the way that Aboriginal issues are dealt with.”
Coon Come understands the protesters, however, recalling his own participation in many events that involved civil disobedience. But protests must lead to dialogue: “I have blocked forestry roads, I have been in courts and in the international community to try to get their support and at the end of the day you need to talk to someone face to face,” he said.
Coon Come acknowledges the intensity of the emotion in that moment and while he didn’t agree with the women calling on him to boycott the meeting, he said that he does not take this personally. Instead he said that he has nothing but compassion for those who care enough to become emotional about such important issues because fundamentally everyone wants the same things.
“Of course everyone is torn about whether or not you should go into a meeting with the prime minister or whether you should be out on the streets with your people,” said Coon Come. “At the end of the day, I feel that both should happen. I think that there should be people out on the streets and also people on the inside. Everyone has an important role to play in making this moment historic whether we are in the courts, in the streets or in the negotiating room. We may have differences of opinion on tactics but in the last analysis we are united in our determination to make fundamental change.”
Coon Come feels it was not necessary to include Governor General Johnston in the meeting with Harper – one of Chief Spence’s central demands – because of the different role he plays as a ceremonial head of state in Canada. Many of the chiefs who boycotted the meeting said that they were doing so because Chief Spence’s terms were not met.
“Under the Canadian constitution the executive powers are vested in the prime minister and therefore the prime minister will never transfer or delegate to the governor general. The role of the governor general is, for the most part, symbolic at this point in Canada’s history. It is not the governor general who will negotiate with Aboriginal peoples,” said Coon Come.
At the same time, Coon Come recognizes that the Harper government’s arrogance played a role in provoking anger from the Idle No More movement.
“It was somewhat mean spirited on the part of the PM and the GG not to recognize the symbolic role of the Queen in the treaty and not to attend what could be a historic meeting,” Coon Come observed.
Coon Come also expressed his support for Chief Spence’s efforts to force the Canadian government to deal with Aboriginal demands. In fact, prior to her hunger strike, Spence visited Eeyou Istchee with a delegation from Attawapiskat at the request of Nemaska Chief Matthew Wapachee.
During that time Coon Come said that the Crees made financial contributions to Spence and while he would not divulge a specific amount he did say that it was in the thousands.
As for the actual meeting with Harper, Coon Come said some progress was achieved, including a commitment to establish high-level discussions on treaty relations and comprehensive land claims, which will be overseen by Harper and the Privy Council.
“The negotiations will take place directly between the government and the treaty groups,” he said. “There was a commitment to have some serious discussions regarding revenue sharing with respect to resource development on Aboriginal land. Of course, these discussions will involve the provinces and I told the PM that the premiers of Quebec, Alberta and BC have already demonstrated their openness to such discussions.”
At the same time, Coon Come noted that Bill C-45 does not affect the Crees of eastern James Bay because they are not subject to the Indian Act. However, Bill C-38, the previous omnibus legislation that became law last spring, may be another story. Coon Come said the Grand Council’s lawyers are still studying the legislation to identify any possible impacts on Eeyou Istchee.
Coon Come said that this interaction involves a complicated process that can take time to understand and resolve. To illustrate this, he recounted the story of how the Cree Naskapi Act came to be. It began with 11 demands by the Cree that would establish self-government. After eight careful years of negotiations, the Cree Naskapi act replaced the Indian Act for the people of Eeyou Istchee.
His point is to explain how these kinds of issues do not get resolved overnight. And, if Bill C-38 is in any violation or infringement of fundamental Aboriginal rights, the Grand Council will intervene with court challenges like those put forward by two Alberta First Nations who have filed lawsuits against Bill C-45.
Reflecting on the Idle No More movement and his previous experience as a leader of the Cree people and as AFN National Chief, Coon Come had this to say:
“I am on the record of having said many times over the last 20 years that Canada is sitting on a social time bomb. This is a combination of unfulfilled treaty obligations, persistent and deepening poverty of First Nations communities and consistent calls from the international bodies, including the UN, to rectify Canada’s profound human rights neglect.
“There is an increase in the young, educated, knowledgeable Aboriginal population and the growing intolerance of the status quo that could one day explode into widespread civil unrest, protest and direct action. That day may have come.
“Hopefully it will be a very loud wake-up call to Canada’s leaders to take the steps to do whatever is needed to fix the relationship between Canada and their Aboriginal peoples and it is time to recognize the Royal Commission on Aboriginal peoples.
“I was part of the Red Power movement way back when and I think each generation will have to get involved and be able to contribute to some fundamental change and they will do what they need to do because it is their future.”