IN DEPTH: ABORIGINAL CANADIANS|
Matthew Coon Come - interview by Rex Murphy
CBC News Online | July 02, 2004
Rex Murphy interview with Matthew Coon Come
Matthew Coon Come has always been a young man with a mission. The intelligent, articulate, sometimes brash leader of the Quebec Crees has the respect — if not affection — of aboriginal people throughout Canada, and of all those who love rooting for a David going up against a Goliath.
When he was 21 and studying law at McGill University, a delegation of Cree elders asked him to run for election as the band's deputy chief. He accepted the challenge, won the election and eventually became Grand Chief of 12,000 Cree of northern Quebec. He also became a formidable opponent of industry and secessionist politicians.
In the 1980s he led the fight against the massive $13 billion James Bay hydroelectric project which threatened to flood much of the land that is Coon Come's home in northern Quebec. Gifted with a savvy for both politics and publicity, Coon Come organized a canoe trip of Cree elders from James Bay, through Lake Erie, down the Hudson River and eventually to the bright-lights destination of New York City.
Coon Come has made brilliant speeches around the world on the plight of aboriginal peoples. In October 1996, he spoke at Harvard University, at the Harvard Center for International Affairs and the Kennedy School of Government. His topic this time was the separatist aspirations of Quebec and how they affect aboriginals.
It was a tough, cerebral speech, with a message separatist leaders in Quebec didn't want to hear, one that singularly put the separatists in an embarrassing defensive position — Coon Come essentially called the separatist leaders ethnic racists.
"I must emphasize at the outset," Coon Come told the high foreheads at Harvard, "that we have no fundamental quarrel with the people of Quebec, with whose aspirations for political and cultural security we can identify. The great majority of Quebecers have shown time and again that they reject discriminatory double standards, and are not prepared to claim rights for themselves while denying them to others.
Coon Come was born in a hut along the trap line his parents worked in northern Quebec. It was a seasonal encampment for the Cree, where they hunted and fished near James Bay. Coon Come didn't see a white man until he was six, and the white man turned out to be an Indian Affairs agent who came by float plane to take young Matthew away to a residential school. Coon Come attended residential schools in Moose Factory, La Tuque and Hull, then enrolled at Trent University to study political science.
In the campaign to become national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Coon Come turned his attack on the Assembly itself, saying it was too much a "service provider" for Ottawa, not the strong aboriginal voice it should be. He drew thunderous applause the day before the vote when he said, "I want to be national chief, but [one] that lobbies and opens doors and facilitates. I don't want to be a national chief that competes with our chiefs and councils for programs and funding dollars."
Now, midway into his three-year term as Grand Chief, he sits down for an interview with The National's Rex Murphy for a look at what he's done and where he's going.
Total population of Canada: 31,414,000|
Total people of aboriginal origin: 1,319,890
North American Indian:
More than one aboriginal origin:
People of aboriginal origin living on reserve: 285,625
People of aboriginal origin living off reserve: 1,034,260
People of non-aboriginal origin living on reserve: 36,230
(Source: 2001 Census, Statistics Canada)
*includes people of a single aboriginal origin and those of a mix of one aboriginal origin with non-aboriginal origins