CBC Digital Archives

Phil Fontaine: Grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations

Don't be fooled by his soft-spoken and conciliatory manner. Phil Fontaine has been a dominant force in native politics since the 1970s. The Manitoba chief who once admitted to being petrified of public speaking was one of the first to speak publicly about residential school abuse. From masterminding the death of Meech Lake to dismantling the Department of Indian Affairs in Manitoba, the tenacious leader of Canada's most powerful native group has orchestrated key deals aimed at improving the quality of life for his people.

media clip
It was Fontaine's second attempt and his first win. After four ballots and 17 hours of marathon voting, Phil Fontaine emerges as the new national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. In a dramatic finish, Fontaine defeats old rival and incumbent Ovide Mercredi for the high-profile job as leader of Canada's largest native organization. By voting for Fontaine, Canada's native chiefs have chosen a pragmatic approach over Mercredi's aggressive style, reports CBC's Sasa Petricic.

Standing side by side and sharing a laugh, the new AFN chief and the new minister of Indian Affairs Jane Stewart, both express desire to work towards improving the relationship between Ottawa and the AFN. 
• Ovide Mercredi's non-cooperative tactics had soured his relationship with Ottawa to the point that Ron Irwin, the former minister of Indian Affairs, refused to meet with Mercredi.
• In a reversal of the strained relationship that characterized Mercredi's later years, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien personally phoned Phil Fontaine to congratulate him on his AFN win.
• Mercredi had been the national chief of the AFN from 1991 to 1997.

• Phil Fontaine's victory was the result of some last minute negotiating. Fontaine had initially promised to support chiefs from B.C.'s Interior who opposed the way land claims were being settled in the province. But in order to win the support of his main rival, B.C. native chief Wendy Grant-John, he publicly stated that he wholeheartedly supported the B.C. process, a move that upset the Interior contingent.

• Mercredi dropped out of the race after the third ballot and threw his support behind Wendy Grant-John, deepening the antagonism between Mercredi and Fontaine.
Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: July 31, 1997
Guests: Phil Fontaine, Jane Stewart
Host: Peter Mansbridge
Reporter: Saša Petricic
Duration: 2:48

Last updated: June 10, 2013

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

All Clips from this Topic

Related Content

The Berger Pipeline Inquiry

It was going to be the biggest private construction project in history. But before a pipeline ...

A Lost Heritage: Residential Schools extra cl...

In 1928, a government official predicted Canada would end its "Indian problem" within two gene...

The Battle for Aboriginal Treaty Rights

It's a battle over the land and its resources. The fight has taken place on the land, in the c...

Davis Inlet: Innu Community in Crisis

"We are a lost people." That description by an Innu chief seemed fitting when a shocking video...

A Lost Heritage: Canada's Residential Schools

In 1928, a government official predicted Canada would end its "Indian problem" within two gene...

Mercury Rising: The Poisoning of Grassy Narro...

Between 1962 and 1970, natives in two northwest Ontario communities sat down to daily meals of...