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Cablegate: Canada's First Nations Elect a New Grand Chief;

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.




E.O. 12958: N/A

1. Summary: Canada's Assembly of First Nations (AFN) met
for their 24th annual meeting on July 15-17 and elected Phil
Fontaine to a three-year term as National Grand Chief.
Chief Fontaine, a self-described conciliator, brings a less
confrontational style than his predecessor, Matthew Coon
Come, to First Nation relations with the federal government.
He is, however, on record as opposing the First Nations
Governance Act, one of three First Nations bills currently
under consideration by Parliament. Some politicians, and
even some aboriginals themselves, have recently questioned
whether the AFN adequately represents aboriginal people to
the government of Canada (GOC). The election of a more
conciliatory Grand Chief, and the prospect of a new Prime
Minister, who may be more willing to listen to the concerns
of the AFN, will augur for an improved dialogue between
Ottawa and the First Nations. End Summary

2. Canada's Assembly of First Nations (AFN) met for their
24th General Assembly July 15-17. Phil Fontaine defeated
incumbent Matthew Coon Come to reassume, after a three-year
interim, the position of National Grand Chief. The AFN,
viewed by its members as a type of parliamentary gathering,
is comprised of the 633 First Nation chiefs, each of whom
represent a tribe or band. It is comprised of status First
Nation chiefs, who represent some 650,000 - 700,000 "status"
natives, but critics claim it represents the chiefs
themselves (some of whose positions are hereditary) more
than the First Nation rank and file. The GOC does not
recognize the First Nations as a separate nation, but rather
as another "order of government" like the provinces. Order
of government is used instead of level of government (which
refers to provinces and municipalities) in order to avoid a
connotation of hierarchy.

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3. In the past, Minister Robert Nault of the Department of
Indian Affairs described the AFN as ineffective and
irrelevant, and "structurally incapable of working with the
government." Many observers describe the AFN as more as a
lobby group than an effective legislative body, and in the
campaign Fontaine rued the fact that the AFN had been
"marginalized" and had been made of "little or no
consequence to Ottawa." Dwindling attendance at the annual
meetings has become a problem, as it is becoming a problem
for the Assembly, as the rank-and-file perceived they were
no longer being represented.

4. Three candidates ran for the position Grand National
Chief: Roberta Jamieson (a lawyer and First Nation civil
rights advocate), Matthew Coon Come (the incumbent Grand
Chief), and Phil Fontaine, who had served as Grand Chief
prior to the election of Coon Come in 2000. Mr. Coon Come,
whose confrontational negotiating style was said to have
repeatedly alienated federal officials, was dropped after
the first ballot when he only earned 18 percent of the vote.
Fontaine won the election in the second round with 292 of
550 votes, edging out Ms. Jamieson, who had positioned
herself midway between her two rivals. Phil Fontaine
campaigned on the promise to work with the government,
instead of alienating it with "noisy rhetoric," but has
declared his opposition to the First Nations Governance Act,
Bill C-7, which is an important piece of legislation
currently before Parliament. Our contacts in the Department
of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND) are
complimentary regarding Mr. Fontaine's abilities, but say it
is premature to comment on how his election would affect the
substance of GOC-AFN relations, particularly regarding the
possible passage and implementation of C-7.

5. Minister for Indian Affairs Nault introduced the First
Nations Governance Initiative in 2001 as a way to modernize
the Indian Act of 1867, and provide first nations people
with better governance. It is meant to make native
leadership more accountable, and to open up the voting
process to aboriginals living off of the reserves. While
many of the chiefs in the Assembly are opposed to Bill C-7,
the First Nations Governance Act, federal officials claim it
is an important, long-overdue piece of legislation which
will permit natives to improve their quality of life. Other
critics go farther and suggest that the chiefs' opposition
is based on a desire to protect inappropriate privileges and

6. During his campaign, Fontaine acknowledged the need for
changes in First Nation affairs, but he called Bill C-7
regressive. He sees poverty as the underlying cause for
many of the problems the First Nations face. It stands to
reason that the AFN would not support the legislation; many
Assembly representatives see their role and status as being
threatened by the law, which would essentially disband the
Assembly in favor of an allegedly more effective group. The
Director of International Affairs at the AFN told the
embassy that the real issue behind the bill is not
accountability of the chiefs, but the need for self-
governance. According to this view, most chiefs do not have
problems with accountability and, in fact, spend much of
their time writing reports and keeping others aware of their
actions. Many within First Nation communities see the bill
as a continuance of assimilation policies they oppose,
saying it imposes non-native cultural structures onto native
groups. At the same time, they are tired of not having a
say in how their governments operate. To remedy this, the
AFN proposed the First Nations Plan, an internal initiative
that would review the structure of the AFN, voting, and
other First Nation governmental issues without GOC
7. Paul Martin, who is expected to become the Liberal
Party's leader in November and Prime Minister shortly
thereafter, has his own reservations regarding Bill C-7. He
received wide praise among native leaders for blocking the
passage of the bill this spring by filibustering in
committee. He does not want it to proceed without further
consultation with the First Nations. Martin stated that the
proposed legislation "severely poisoned the well of federal-
aboriginal relations," noting that the government, in
pushing ahead with the legislation despite an AFN boycott
announced in 2001, had created a quagmire." (Note: Bill C-7
is considered a part of the so-called "legacy legislation"
of the outgoing Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, himself a
former Minister of Indian Affairs, who may recommend quick
passage when Parliament returns to work in September.)

8. Comment: The AFN is a diverse and unwieldy group, not
surprising given Canada's huge geographical expanse, its
propensity for regional political discord, and the varying
governance structures currently in place among its First
Nations. The Assembly is essentially a lobby group whose
prestige rises and falls with its ability to influence
policy. Much of the recent decline is attributed to former
AFN Chief Matthew Coon Come whose acerbic style alienated
potential allies within the Department of Indian Affairs.
The Department delivered a strong signal last year when it
cut the AFN's GOC-derived funding in half, ostensibly
because of his inability to work effectively with the GOC.
Martin, the Prime Minister-in-waiting has not only earned
the AFN's gratitude by questioning C-7 and announcing that
would seek equal representation for the AFN in all federal-
provincial meetings, but he has also reflected a
conciliatory, consultative management style. The stage is
set for a renewed dialogue, even though some tension will
likely remain.

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