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Mercredi's vision of nationhood.

After 16 hours and four ballots the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) elected its new National Chief, Ovide Mercredi, in Winnipeg last month. Mercredi achieved the needed 60 per cent of the delegates, beating Phil Fontaine 271 to 177 in the final vote.

Georges Erasmus, National Chief since 1985, stepped down from an Assembly which is stronger and more politically assertive now than when he entered. And First Nations from Saskatchewan re-entered the AFN -- bringing it a step closer to encompassing all the First Nations in Canada.

"We stand united," Mercredit told the delegates after receiving the sacred bundle and blanket of the national post from Assembly elders." And we will become stronger. And we want to tell all Canadians that justice for First Nations citizens will mean justice for them. And I have a message for the [federal government], and that is that this Assembly has elected one tough leader."

Mercredi, a Cree from northern Manitoba, had been Manitoba Regional Chief to the AFN since 1989. A lawyer and activist, he worked as an advisor to the Assembly during the Meech Lake crisis, is an expert in constitutional law and international human rights, and was an Assembly spokesperson during the Oka crisis of the summer of 1990.

His main contender, Phil Fontaine, is Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. A key architect in the strategizing behind Elijah Harper's blocking of the Meech Lake Accord, he is a graduate in political science and history. He was also the most familiar and favoured candidate with the mainstream media.

However in the backrooms of the Assembly and around the coffee machines the "anyone-but-Phil" campaign gathered momentum, aligning both radical and conservative delegates.

The reasons for concern were several, but probably the greatest was Fontaine's alleged connections with the Liberal Party. His well organized campaign, which featured glossy placards and flashy buttons, was more reminiscent of a Tory, Liberal, or NDP convention than an aboriginal assembly, and that was not lost on many delegates.

This allegation found a receptive ear among delegates unwilling to repeat, what Dene leader Bill Erasmus described as, "the nightmare of the early 80s."

It was then that the AFN leadership was embroiled in a financial scandal, with AFN money allegedly directed into then Indian Affairs Minister John Munro's Liberal leadership bid.

The AFN leadership of that time, Saskatchewan's David Ahenakew and Sol Sanderson, are currently on trial in Ottawa for their part in the Munro scandal, so the spectre of party politics continues to haunt the AFN.

Much of the anti-Fontaine vote reflected not so much a condemnation of Fontaine's policies, which differ little from Mercredi's, as an underlying, (and undocumented) fear that the influence of the federal Liberal party would worm its way into the inner workings of the Assembly.

Mercredi's vision of


Mercredi was not the best speaker. He was not the wittiest candidate. But what he offered, and in the end what got him elected, was his vision of an Assembly independent of any white political party, an Assembly that will negotiate on a nation to nation basis with the Federal and provincial governments, and an Assembly that will play an activist role.

Mercredi is not the conciliator that Neil Sterritt, Gitksan Hereditary Chief, is. Sterritt, of all the candidates, talked most of a "non-confrontational" approach to the federal and provincial governments.

Contrasted with the more "conservative" approach of Sterritt and many of the other Chiefs in Assembly was the position represented by Mike Mitchell, Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne.

Presenting views that reflect the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, Mitchell talked of total sovereignty, the need to reject the Indian Act-imposed system of bank councils, and the need to regain or create exclusive institutions and laws as an assertion of complete sovereignty.

It was clear at the Assembly that there are still many Chiefs who are frightened by the views of the Six Nation delegates. Talk of complete sovereignty is still too radical a concept for many Chiefs from other parts of Canada. But the diversity of the First Nations, whether historical or cultural, has as much to do with the differing conceptions of sovereignty as any political differences in the commonly understood sense of the word.

Among the Mohawk Nation, for instance, the traditional government -- The Longhouse -- is very strong and increasing in influence. The Band Council system, which is after all a creation of colonialism, is in decline. Aboriginal politics in southern Ontario are affected by this. There is a refection, not only of the Indian Affairs Department, but also of involvement or membership in any "white" political party.

An Elijah Harper, for all the good work he does, would risk losing his citizenship in the Six Nations, and would certainly be viewed with suspicion as a sitting MP, if he was a Mohawk from Southern Ontario rather than a Cree from Manitoba.

In this difference of approach to sovereignty and the process of decolonization, Mercredi is probably best described, if somewhat simplistically, as holding the "middle ground." He rejects any form of "delegated authority" from the Canadian government. Yet he would lobby for aboriginal recognition in any reform to the Canadian constitution -- a constitution that many Six Nations citizens would view as having no relevancy to aboriginal nations.

"Sovereignty is not the Indian Act," Mercredi says. "It is not Parliament sitting down to pass a law that tells me that I can do this but I can't do that. That is not sovereignty, that is not self-government, and that is not self-rule. That is delegated authority. The source of our sovereignty comes from our own people, our own history, our own culture, our own nations."

A leader influenced by Mahatma Ghandi, Mercredi also advocates non-violent civil disobedience as an important form of resistance.

A myriad of challenges

The AFN will face many challenges during Mercredi's term. The constitutional crisis is at the forefront, and the consensus is that any altering of Canada's make-up cannot exclude, or deny, the sovereign rights of First Nations. First Nations, both within Quebec and in the rest of Canada, are seeking constitutional changes guaranteeing self-determination, aboriginal title and treaty rights.

As one delegate put it, "We want recognition as the founding nation of this country -- not merely as one of three."

There are a myriad of other issues confronting the AFN -- from the preservation of aboriginal languages to hunting and trapping rights -- but what makes the future look positive, and from the aboriginal perspective unalterable, in the new strength now energizing the First Nations. There is a generation coming to the fore, educated in the white schools and universities, that knows the workings of Canadian society and its power structures. These people are the articulate leaders that Canadian non-aboriginal society is now "discovering."

And just as a new generation shook Quebec's social fabric during its Quiet Revolution, so this aboriginal generation is beginning to rip away the last vestiges of the colonial system.

In that process the First Nations may be allies of the Left and broader movements for social change, but they will never by subservient to any other single issue. Aboriginal politics and issues are central, and if the Left merely views the concerns of First Nations as "add-ons" to the fight against continental free trade or the Tories, then the First Nations will not be along for that ride.

Paul Ogresko is a correspondent for the Canadian Tribune.
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Title Annotation:Ovide Mercredi, Assembly of First Nations
Author:Ogresko, Paul
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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