It was an exciting time to see the election of a new National Chief. Matthew Coon Come was back after a year off from politics. A Grand Council official said he hadn’t seen Coon Come so charged up since the Cree fight against Hydro-Quebec’s Great Whale project. It was this charismatic and dynamic energy that secured him the position of National Chief defeating incumbent Phil Fontaine.
Because in the end this was a race between just two people. Marilyn Buffalo, the former Native Women’s Association of Canada President, and Mushkegowuk Grand Chief Lawrence Martin were knocked out of the race on the first ballot. Buffalo only received 13 votes, two short of the 15 she needed to stay on the ticket. Martin was knocked out because he had the lowest amount of votes as an eligible candidate.
Buffalo quickly crossed over and joined the Coon Come camp. She said she supported Coon Come because “it’s time we find a voice that’s respectful of the grassroots.” Indeed that was the message Coon Come was delivering. He said, “This campaign is not about Coon Come, it’s about the people.”
It was a message that Coon Come took across Canada with him. It worked and the results were obvious as his crosscountry campaign tour netted him 80 volunteers. It was a contrast to the other candidates easily seen when you walked into the campaign offices. Coon Come’s office would have seven or more working and Fontaine’s only one.
Coon Come’s vigour was never more evident than during his speech during the all candidates’ open forum on July 11. You could hear the anger in his voice when he asked, “Why have our First nations Peoples been confined to reserves and places of limited size without resources to support our economies? Why have our people been marginalized?” The cheers and clapping started and it was a message that Coon Come hammered home time and time again. His first strike against Fontaine came when he said the “path of convenience” wasn’t wrong but the there was another path, “a path of honour and dignity for First Nations Peoples and also for Canada.” It wouldn’t be the last time that Coon Come brought the present policies of the AFN to task. Coon Come asked why the AFN didn’t speak up in Canada and internationally for First Nations human rights or against extinguishment clauses and the securing of Aboriginal and treaty rights. He talked about the lack of AFN assistance in Dudley George’s death and the requests for an inquiry. Coon Come questioned, “When did we agree to be silent after our people are shot and killed for defending our rights?”
Coon Come promised “loyalty to our Peoples and their aspirations.” He said, “I am not in the federal camp, the Liberal camp or any provincial camp. I will be always where I was born: in the First Peoples’ camp.”
It was the closeness that Fontaine nurtured with the Feds that proved to be his downfall. When the second ballot came back with 58 per cent for Coon Come or 10 votes short of the 60 per cent Coon Come needed, Fontaine conceded, saying, “The people have spoken.”