It’s probably fair to say that most Cree people didn’t follow national native politics very diligently until their native son Matthew Coon Come was elected National Chief. They’d heard of, thanks to our Mohawk brethren during the Oka Crisis, Ovide Mercredi.
Chances are the only other prominent Indians they could named were Chief Dan George and Crazy Horse. They might have remembered, vaguely, Bill Erasmus, who served as national chief in the 1980’s.
It was only when Coon Come defeated Phil Fontaine of Manitoba for National Chief in the year 2000 that many James Bay Cree heard, and quickly forgot, the name Phil Fontaine.
Now he’s back.
Who is Phil Fontaine and why is his name French? And, according to Matthew Coon Come and many others, why is he so cozy with the Federal government? We won’t even pretend to answer those questions here.
Larry Philip(Buddy) Fontaine was born at the Sagkeeng Anicinabe Nation on the Fort Alexander Reserve in Manitoba on September 20,
1944. He received his first schooling at the Assiniboia Residential School in Winnipeg. He graduated from Powerview Collegiate in 1961. He was elected Chief of his home reserve in 1973 at the age of 28, serving a four year term. He majored in political studies and graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1981. In 1989, he was elected Grand Chief of the assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, a position he kept for three consecutive terms. He won by acclamation in 1991 and was reelected in 1994.
In 1997 Fontaine was elected National Chief. Unfortunately, nothing exciting was happening in native affairs at the time for Fontaine. The flames from Oka were smouldering, Burnt Church loomed. Internationally, Chiapas was a continent away. Bad news for any hungry Indian leader waiting to prove their spirit. Good news for an ambitious National Chief waiting to pounce on a Chief burdened by peace.
That man was Matthew Coon Come who snatched the spotlight from Phil Fontaine in Ottawa that fine summer evening of August,
2000. Fontaine could do nothing but retreat to a job at the Indian Claims Commisssion to regroup.
Matthew Coon Come had a reputation to live up to. Militant, Hydro Ass kicker. Minor World Celebrity. Expectations soon fell short. Matthew insulted party and non party animal chiefs and governments alike. The words, Drunk, Racist and Genocide oozed from press releases at 1 Nicholas St, in Ottawa. Fontaine listened to the chorus from holy Ottawa calling for the excorcism of this fiery tongued Cree demon and National Chief.
Fontaine would have understood the gauntlet Coon Come had to endure. His early years as Manitoba chief were not without their cries for his head. He’d been branded rebel, militant, criminal, incompetent before. Not only by the powers that were, but by his very own in Manitoba.
Manitoba was and surely is a special case in Native life. Its capital, Winnipeg, has the largest population of urban native people anywhere in Canada. Imagine a population of Quebec Cree, 70.000 strong, ghettoed in a city not too much larger than Val d’Or. And then, maybe, imagine, being their leader. Crime is rampant, Poverty even more rampant, Despair is overwhelming. Fire, death, destruction, drive-bys, prostitution and other imaginables are fodder, and entertainment, for daily news. What to do?
Cries for Fontaine’s letter of resignation resounded when the press reported he had broke bread for peace with the chiefs of Winnipeg’s police force and the Manitoba warrior Society in a fancy Winnipeg eatery. He survived that scandal unscathed to become National chief.
In the early 1990’s, when he was still National Chief, Fontaine was one of the few leaders who would dare admit to the sexual and physical suffering he endured while “studying” in the government and church run schools.
Precious few of our leaders can endure the stings and sorrows of our native experience with that fortitude, dignity, and honesty today .In that way, I think, our Phil has proven himself.