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Fontaine issues warning.

National Chief Phil Fontaine sent a stern warning to the government of Canada on July 10. Don't try to divide and conquer the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).

At the AFN's annual general meeting in Halifax, Fontaine ended his opening address with a few strongly-worded, but cryptic, remarks about a recent attempt by the government to deal separately with British Columbia chiefs and with the national organization.

"We can't have any government, whether it's a provincial government or a federal government, impose its will on us. To play politics with our issues, to try and divide our community, to try and divide this organization, we cannot allow that to happen," he said.

"The responsibility to deal with our issues is ours. It doesn't belong to the federal government. It doesn't belong to the provincial governments. We have to be extremely careful that we don't place ourselves in a position where we allow the government to undermine our good work, to play one region off another, to play individuals against others. We simply cannot allow that to happen."

Fontaine said he would deal with the problem promptly.

"I will be meeting with the BC delegation later today to resolve one of these issues where the actions of the federal government have caused some confusion. I take what the government has done as unfair and completely unnecessary. They have no right to do what they've done. They've been completely irresponsible," he said.


"And I will sit with the chiefs from British Columbia and we will talk about this issue that has caused some concern with B.C. And at the end of our discussion, I am certain that the decision that we take will be right for B.C/and right for this assembly."

Fontaine did not explain what he was talking about. He ended his speech at that point. When Windspeaker sought to get to the bottom of the mystery, political staff in the national chief's office (NCO) provided an exclusive briefing on the matter.

They said that on the weekend prior to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's June 12 announcement of the federal government's plan to revise the way specific claims are dealt with, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) officials met with AFN officials in an undisclosed downtown Vancouver hotel to discuss the details that would allow the national chief to appear on the podium with Prime Minister Harper and Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice as they made the announcement.

The AFN officials learned during their meeting that another set of INAC officials were meeting at the same time with British Columbia chiefs Edward John, Stewart Phillip and Ken Malloway in the same hotel two floors above.

The AFN staff members, who spoke on the condition they not be identified, said the government was offering the B.C. chiefs a deal to include provisions that would be favourable to B.C. in the planned legislation that will empower the government's new specific claims plan, if demands related to the Make Poverty History campaign would not be pushed so forcefully.

AFN political staff saw that as an attempt to target the national chief's strongest political support within the AFN and a way of undermining the national chief's campaign to pressure the government to deal with social problems on reserve.

They also said the anger evident in Fontaine's comments was directed "more towards the government."

Windspeaker asked Grand Chief Edward John, a member of the B.C. First Nations Summit executive task force, what was going on. He said there's been a misunderstanding caused by poor communications between the B.C. region and the AFN national office.

"We did have a meeting yesterday afternoon," he said on July 11, "to try to make sure that we are all on the same page and we are. The national chief brought that forward that he thought there was an end run going on. We didn't think that there was anyone doing any end runs on this. I think it was just miscommunications. We were having our discussions with the government of Canada and so was the national assembly office."

The day after alerting Windspeaker to the situation, the NCO staff acknowledged that the matter had been sorted out, but maintained their position that the fact that the government had scheduled two meetings at the same time indicates the government was trying to drive a wedge into the AFN. Other sources, both within the NCO and in B.C. region, said the B.C. chiefs who met with INAC were quick to notify the national office that the meeting had happened.

British Columbia, where approximately one-third of the First Nations in Canada are located, is a very powerful voting block in AFN politics. Fontaine has relied heavily on B.C. support, to the point where other regions complain that B.C. is the tail wagging the AFN dog.

Number treaty chiefs have been meeting separately on and off for the last two years because they see their treaty issues being neglected in favour of issues that matter to B.C., where there are no historic treaties.

Aside from this issue, the mood in the room at Halifax's World Trade and Convention Centre was celebratory on the first day of the chiefs' assembly.

The chiefs were triumphant there was increased attention being paid to First Nation issues in the wake of the national day of action on June 29. The mainstream media presence was much heavier than usual at this assembly.

"The national day of action was the culmination of many years of work and it was work that paid off," Fontaine said.

He told the chiefs that an Ipsos Reid poll conducted just before the day of action revealed that 77 per cent of Canadians supported resolution of First Nation issues.

"This is no small achievement," the national chief said. "On any good day, the federal Conservative government is lucky if they can get 35 per cent of Canadians behind them."

The poll also showed that 55 per cent of Canadians believe the government should honour the treaties, even if doing so hinders or impedes economic development.

"That shows that Canadians believe that a deal is a deal," Fontaine added.

The chiefs clearly believed that the day of action had succeeded in raising awareness of their issues to unprecedented levels. Fontaine said it was important to take advantage of that.

"We have arrived at a point in time where we have to clearly stake out the details of our agenda," Fontaine said. "Canada is listening ... We have to make sure the momentum we've built continues."

Fontaine asked the chiefs for direction on what to do next. Suggestions ranged from monthly days of action to a strong stand supporting Shawn Brant and others who might face civil lawsuits or criminal charges as a result of their activities that day.

Time was a factor at this assembly as, for the first time ever, a clock was ticking down the three minutes given to each speaker and was projected on the two big video screens in the assembly hall.

But the national chief gave up the seven minutes he was allotted to respond to the comments from the floor to Roseau River (Manitoba) Chief Terrance Nelson, the man whose resolution last December led to the day of action.

"What are we going to do next? What's going to happen after the national day of action? Well, it's very simple. One of things that we need to do as chiefs is we need to give hope to our people. If we don't give hope to our people then it's very, very clear what the results will be. Shawn Brant did what he said he was going to do. Shawn Brant is not any kind of a monster.

"Shawn Brant is a person who has stood up for his people. And what Shawn Brant did is nothing compared to what's going to happen in the future if we can't give our people hope," Nelson said. "If we can't give hope to our young people that things are seriously going to change for us, I can guarantee you that railway blockades are going to be the least of your worries."

By Paul Barnsley

Windspeaker Staff Writer

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Author:Barnsley, Paul
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Aug 1, 2007
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