Alternativa Latinoamericana
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Alberta, Mayo/May 2009
ALTERNATIVA Latinoamericana
Assembly of First Nations and their
National Gran Chief Phil Fontaine
What we know about First Nations people is
often distorted by myths and racism. Many people
in Canada are unaware of the living conditions in
some reserves. Most Canadians erroneously
believe life in the reserve is better than it is, but
the living conditions for most First Nations people
are below the living conditions of most Canadians.
First Nations are affected more than the rest by
poverty,unemployment, and low incomes. They
have higher rates of incarceration, higher infant
mortality rates and worse and more crowded
housing conditions. Their health is affected by
higher rates of diabetes, they suffer from TB and
many face challenges in accessing safe drinking
water. Children face a lack of appropriate school
facilities too.
"I am always in a great dilemma", said Chief
Fontaine, whenever he discusses the challenges
First Nations face in Canada he is also afraid that
their many successes will be overlooked, will
become invisible. And yet, the need to speak truth
to power must prevail, he says.
First Nations face many challenges and
poverty is the biggest one. Naturally, money alone
will not solve all the problems; and yet, money is
part of the answer. "The biggest challenge
Canada faces is that our people are too poor," he
says. They face a housing crisis in native
communities and erratic provision of health -thus,
First Nations often do not have access to the
same universal health care all Canadians have.
Children are missing out on education because of
lack of schools -yet they are expected to compete.
They face high rates of unemployment. And,
suicide rates are high too, particularly among
males between the ages of 14 and 24. "We are
losing too many of our young." We need safe
drinking water, he says, "we didn't pollute and
contaminate our water sources but we ­the Chiefs
in Council- are expected to fix that."
Although his organization, the Assembly of
First Nations has been representing First Nations
people since 1982 ­and before that there was the
National Indian Brotherhood, that gave birth to
AFN, the issue of legitimacy is often still present:
"We are the only peoples in this land that
has treaties. I have to convince the federal
government year after year of the legitimacy of the
community I represent, the legitimacy and validity
of this organization to represent all First Nation
People. If I speak out of turn I get punished."
In terms of human rights Chief Fontaine
argues that "Canada cannot pick and choose on
the human rights which supports," the human
rights of First Nations are not less important than
the human rights of the rest of Canadians -as at
times seems. He believes Canadians care but do
not always know about the challenges First
Nations face: "We believe Canadians are fair
minded people and once they know the true story
behind aboriginal poverty ­it would be as
unacceptable to them as it is to us."
June 11, 2008 the Canadian government
acknowledged the damage of residential schools,
Prime Minister Harper took full responsibility on
behalf of all Canadians apologizing in Parliament.
Sitting within a circle of elders Chief Fontaine
explained the meaning of the apology to First
"This day testifies to the achievement of the longer this house will consider us
the `Indian problem' for being just who we are...we
heard Canada, finally, say `I am sorry' ...We can
speak truth to power..." It is "a new dawn" in the
relationship between First Nations and the rest of
Canada: First Nations are "an indispensable part
of the Canadian identity.
"The attempt to erase our identity hurt us
deeply but it also hurt Canada..." A true
foundation for society needs to be that "we all own
our own lives and destinies," he said.
The apology took 150 years, the result of
efforts made by First Nations people who have
been identified in the Canadian Constitution as
one of the founding nations of this country.
Because of the 1927 Indian Act, prohibiting First
"We are looking for the basic necessities of life that come with being Canadian ­ clean drinking water, decent
housing, education and health care. We are looking for equality of opportunity so we can get good jobs and
support ourselves and our families. We are looking to control our own destinies. Improving our lives will not
only be good for us. It will be good for Canada." -AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine
Nations to form political organizations, to speak
their native languages and practice their
traditional religion, the coming together of First
Nations in Canada was not an easy process.
But, despite the 1927 Act, First Nations
people organized. In recent history, the National
Indian Council was formed in 1961, and from it
evolved the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB) in
1968. NIB was able to challenge the White Paper
of the Liberal Party which called for assimilation
of First Nations and their removal from the
Canadian Constitution. The Assembly of First
Nations came to life from NIB in 1982. The
Assembly of First Nations (AFN) was created to
ensure true representation by bringing together
all the regional chiefs. In 1982, during its first
General Assembly in BC, the AFN elected Dr.
David Ahenakew as First National Chief. Prior to
him there have been other National Chiefs -like
Walter Dieter, George Manuel, Noel Starblanket
and Delbert Riley; and, from that day on others
folowed David Ahenakew -like Georges Erasmus,
Ovide Mercredi, Matthew Coon Come and Phil
Together with the Canadian official apology
there is financial compensation that was
approved as part of the process of healing. The
compensation is called Common Experience
Payment or CEP. AFN has called for a National
Day of Action to ensure the Canadian
government fulfils its promises about improving
the life of First Nations people ­the first was very
sucessful and took place on June 29, 2008, all
Canadians were invited to be part of it and show
their solidarity with First Nations people.
The National Chief remains very active in
pursuing what First Nations people see as
crucial. For instance past December 2008 Chief
Fontaine was openly critical about Canada's
position at the United Nations Conference on
Climate Change. He questioned the Canadian
government's position on climate change in
connection with the rights of First Nations people.
It is "incomprehensible in an advanced
democratic state as Canada to choose to ignore
the rights of Indigenous people" so tied to the
natural world, the land, the water, by not
endorsing the global climate change agreement.
"The rights of our children are also compromised
in this country. The federal government has
refused to address discrimination against First
Nations children in the Child Welfare system and
Education...Canada's position at the United
Nations Conference on Climate Change is the
latest in a series of hostile decisions against
Indigenous rights which continue to affect
Canada's International reputation as a defender
and promoter of human rights." (
The AFN has a plan for the federal
economic stimulus allocated in the budget in
connection with the global crisis, it is to be
invested in First Nations infrastructure, education
and support partnerships between First Nations
and the private sector.
"We know where houses are needed, we
know where schools are needed and we know
which communities need safe drinking
water...Canada's population is ageing at the
same time as the First Nations population is
coming of age...More than half our people are
under the age of 25. We must invest in education
and training for First Nations so Canada can
remain a productive and competitive country. We
literally cannot afford to lose this generation."
Regarding the world crisis Chief Fontaine
explained that First Nations "understand how
Canadians are feeling because...(we) have been
in recession for years...This crisis is
unprecedented, yet it also presents and
unprecedented opportunity to create a better
quality of life for First Nations while creating jobs
and a stronger economy for all Canadians. The
message I will be taking to First Ministers is:
strong First Nations make a stronger Canada."
Chief Fontaine is highly respected in
Canada, he has been involved in bringing
together his people for three decades. His
personal history is consistent with his struggle in
bringing to light the dark legacy of residential
schools in Canada. He is the youngest son in an
Ojibway family from Manitoba. His parents, he has
explained, were hard working people who
provided for their children. His father died
suddenly and his mother provided alone for her
family. Chief Fontaine experienced residential
school himself for about 10 years. During a public
broadcast on CBC, in October 30, 1990, while
being interviewed by Barbara Frum, Phil Fontaine
gave testimony about his own abuse in the Fort
Alexander Indian Residential School. He
mentioned racism, sexual and physical abuse and
the powerlessness of poverty.
Chief Fontaine became interested in politics
at a young age, his mother was the first Indian
woman in Canada to be elected to a band council
in 1952 and he learned much from her. In the
early 80s he was elected as Manitoba Regional
Chief for the Assembly of First Nations and in
1991 he became Grand Chief of the Assembly of
Manitoba Chiefs. In 1997 he was elected National
Chief; he is currently serving his third term in
office. He led First Nations people to the
successful resolution and settlement of claims
arising out of the 150 year Indian residential
school tragedy ­it is the largest, most unique and
comprehensive settlement in Canadian history,
worth 5.2 billion dollars in individual
compensation, and including a Truth and
Reconciliation Commission, an education fund,
healing resources and commemoration funding.
This past April 29
, the Pope himself
expressed sorrow on behalf of the Catholic
Church, to a delegation of First Nations people
led by Chief Fontaine, for the "deplorable
conduct" of some of its members at Canada's
Indian residential schools. "I sensed his anguish
and pain. He acknowledged our suffering and
that is important to me and that was what I was
looking for...", said Chief Fontaine.
There is a two-paragraph statement on the
Vatican's website:
"Given the sufferings that some indigenous
children experienced in the Canadian residential
school system, the Holy Father expressed his
sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable
conduct of some members of the church and he
offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity. His
Holiness emphasized that acts of abuse cannot
be tolerated in society. He prayed that all those
affected would experience healing, and he
encouraged First Nations peoples to continue to
move forward with renewed hope."
This was the "missing piece," has said Chief
Fontaine, other churches involved in the
residential schools had apologized already. This
trip to the Vatican was part of the Canadian
apology and settlement. The journey of First
Nations people continues...Canada should be
proud. We needs leaders like Chief Fontaine to
guide us all.
Nora Fernández (Alternativa
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