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From the very beginning, even before it was called the Assembly of First Nations, the organization that represents status Indians and treaty nations in dealings with the Canadian government has been on a mission-- to enhance the position of the First Nations people in Canada and help them claim their rightful place in this country's future.

More than 630 First Nations communities in Canada are represented by their chiefs at the Assembly of First Nations. The organization is designed to present the views of First Nations people through their leaders in the areas of Aboriginal and treaty rights, economic development, education, languages and literacy, health, housing, social development, justice, taxation, land claims, environment, and other issues that arise from time to time.

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) came into being in 1982, but was born out of the National Indian Brotherhood, whose first fight was to battle the much reviled 1969 White Paper, a federal Liberal government Indian policy, the core philosophy of which was assimilation. That policy was. defeated, and the brotherhood went on to press for other changes in provincial, and federal Aboriginal policy.

By the time the National Indian Brotherhood reinvented itself as the Assembly of First Nations, Canada had developed a home-grown Constitution that recognized and affirmed the existing Aboriginal and treaty rights of the Indian, Inuit, and Metis peoples of Canada.

Soon after a 1982 AFN general assembly held in Penticton, B.C. where the first national chief of the AFN, David Ahenekew, was elected, the organization set its sights on Ottawa and the first of four First Ministers Conferences on Aboriginal rights. The AFN was charged with representing the status and treaty Indian point of view on what was meant by "existing rights."

The battle raged over whether section 35 of the Canadian Constitution meant inherent Aboriginal rights or contingent Aboriginal rights. By 1987 at the last First Ministers Conference on Aboriginal rights, positions had galvanized with many provincial and territorial leaders refusing to accept the position of First Nations that the right to self-govern was inherent and proved out through history. There has been little resolved in this matter since that time. Still, the AEN made the position of its members clear, and continues its work in this regard. In fact, the inherent right to self-govern is central to its mandate.

A declaration made in 1985, and a part of the Assembly of First Nations charter, states that the chiefs of the Indian First Nations in Canada declare that "the Creator has given us the right to govern ourselves and the right to self determination" and that those rights cannot be taken away by any other nations.

There have been other battles, but the most current one waged by the Assembly of First Nations has still, at its crux, the matter of governance.

In 2001, Minister of Indian Affairs Robert Nault introduced the First Nations governance act, and debate about the proposed legislation has occupied much of the Assembly of First. Nations' time and energy over the past two years.

The act, known as Bill C-7, died when the House of Commons broke for summer on June 13, but it could be resurrected when the House resumes in fall.

While it may have a short respite on this front, the Assembly of First Nations has before it another weighty issue when it holds the 24th annual general assembly in Edmonton from July 15 to 17, and that is the question of who will lead the organization for the next three years.

Three contenders have thrown their hats into the ring for the job of national chief--Roberta Jamieson, current chief of Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario, Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly. of First Nations from 1997 to 2000, and incumbent Matthew Coon Come.

The election will take place July 16 beginning at 9 a.m. On the evening prior, the candidates will participate in an open forum.

Each member of the assembly has one vote. The winner of the election is the person that first gains a majority of 60 per cent of the votes of the representatives of the members. registered at the assembly.

If any candidate fails to get 15 votes, he or she is eliminated. After each ballot, the candidate who gains the lowest number of votes is also eliminated.

As soon as the winner is announced, that person takes the oath of office before the assembly and assumes office from that time.

Candidates for Assembly of First Nations National Chief

ROBERTA JAMIESON was raised on the Six Nations territory with her seven brothers and sisters. Her interest in politics was sparked while a student studying medicine at McGill University in the early 1970s. She joined the movement against the James Bay hydroelectric dam being built without the consent of the James Bay Cree, and in 1974 had the opportunity to debate a land claims issue with then-minister of Indian Affairs Jean Chretien.

That same year, Jamieson became executive assistant to George Manuel, president of the National Indian Brotherhood. Jamieson soon changed her studies from medicine to law and graduated in 1976 from the University of Western Ontario School of Law, the first woman from a First Nation in Canada to earn a LL.B.

From 1978 to 1982, Jamieson served with the Indian Commission of Ontario. During this period, she acted as speaker for the Canada-wide "All-Chiefs Conference" called by Noel Starbianket that began the transformation of the National Indian Brotherhood into the Assembly of First Nations.

In 1982, Jamieson became the first non-parliamentarian to be appointed an ex-officio member of a House of Commons committee, the Special Task Force on Indian Self Government, which in 1983 produced The Penner Report.

She was also chair of the legal group advising the Assembly of First Nations during the First Ministers Conferences of the 1980s. From 1989 to 1999, Jamieson served the Legislative Assembly as Ombudsman for Ontario and became the founding president of the Canadian Ombudsman Association.

In 2001, Jamieson became the Chief of Six Nations of the Grand River, where she resides with husband Tom Hill. They have a daughter, Jessica.

PHIL FONTAINE calls the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba home. His early life was spent on the Fort Alexander reserve, where he attended a residential school run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He also attended the Assiniboia Residential School in Winnipeg and was the first Aboriginal leader to publicly expose the abuses that existed in the residential school system.

Fontaine graduated from Powerview Collegiate in 1961 and later attended the University of Manitoba where he graduated in 1981 with a Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in political science.

Fontaine was 28 years old in 1.973 when he was elected chief of the Sagkeeng First Nation, where he served two consecutive terms.

Phil Fontaine counts among the milestones of his leadership at the community level the first First Nation locally controlled education system in Canada, the first First Nation locally controlled child and family services system in Canada and the first First Nation alcohol treatment facility in Canada.

After his term as Sagkeeng chief, Fontaine was employed by the Southeast Tribal Council as a special advisor, and by the federal government as regional director general for the Yukon region before being elected Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs in 1991. He served with AMC until 1997 and during that time gained national prominence for his stance on the Meech Lake Accord, which, in part, resulted in its defeat.

Fontaine also helped in the development of the framework agreement that saw an attempt by the federal government to implement the inherent right of self-government to restore First Nations jurisdiction to First Nations in Manitoba. Fontaine also helped fashion an employment equity agreement with 39 federal agencies during that time.

In 1997, Fontaine was elected to the job of national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. During his three years in that position, Fontaine brokered the federal government's statement of reconciliation, which included a statement of regret for those physically and sexually abused in the residential school environment.

He was the first First Nations leader to address the Organization of American States and also made the Declaration of Kinship and Cooperation among the Indigenous Nations of North America on behalf of Canada's First Nations peoples.

On March 30, 1998, he entered into a memorandum of understanding with CGA (Certified General Accountants) Canada to work together to raise First Nations financial reporting standards and increase the accounting and auditing knowledge, skill and capability of First Nations peoples.

Following his term as national chief, Fontaine was appointed chief commissioner of the Indian Claims Commission. He resigned this position in May to run for a second term in the AFN's top job.

Fontaine is the father of two children, Mike and Maya, and grandfather of five.

MATTHEW COON COME was born on his parents' trapline in Mistissini. His political career began when he was young and took the job as co-ordinator for the inland Cree communities in Quebec, negotiating the first Aboriginal self-government legislation in Canada--The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.

Matthew Coon Come served two terms as chief of the Mistissini First Nations and went on to become the executive director of the Grand Council of the Crees.

He was first elected as grand chief of the council and chairman of the Cree Regional Authority in 1987, and was re-elected by the James Bay Cree people for four successive terms. While there he was involved in the council's successful effort to gain consultative status at the United Nations. In 1994, he won the Goldman Prize for marshalling the local, national and international environmental communities to stop a hydroelectric project on his people's land. In addition to the Goldman Prize, he is also a recipient of the Equinox Environemental Award and the Conde Naste Environemental Award.

Coon Come has been a director of Air Creebec, the Cree Regional Economic Enterprises Company, the Cree Construction Company, Servinor, the James Bay Cree Cultural Education Centre, the Cree Board, of Health and Social Services, the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources, and the Cree School Board.

He was chairman of the James Bay Eeyou Corporation and of the James Bay Native Development Corporation. In 1995 he became a founding member of the First Nations Bank of Canada.

Under Coon Come's direction, the Grand Council of the Crees intervened during the Supreme Court reference on Quebec succession, arguing that the Aboriginal peoples in that province should not be ignored on any question of separation. His name is attached to two of the largest treaty rights and treaty implementation cases currently before Canadian courts.

Coon Come has studied law, political science, economics and Native studies at Trent and McGill universities. . On July 12, 2000, Coon Come was elected national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

In 1976 he married Maryann Matoush. They have three daughters and two sons.
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Title Annotation:spotlight on Assembly of First Nations
Publication:Wind Speaker
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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