Angry protesters took over a planned talk by First Nations leader Phil Fontaine in Winnipeg on Wednesday, resulting in the rescheduling of the event.
Fontaine was scheduled to speak at the University of Winnipeg in the early afternoon on First Nations issues in the past, present and future.
But loud protesters crowded the area almost immediately after he began speaking, some armed with anti-oil sands signs, others with drums and some with their faces painted red and black.
'Frankly, [the protesters] don’t know what they’re talking about' - University of Winnipeg President Lloyd Axworthy
Fontaine, a former Assembly of First Nations chief, accepted a job with TransCanada Pipeline, a natural gas and oil pipeline developer in December.
Protesters were angry he took the job, saying he isn't representing their interests and isn't thinking of the environment.
“How dare you, Phil!” charged protester Jo Seenie. “On your own people? Anishinaabe people? How dare you sell us out to work for the enemy that’s destroying this earth?”
One protester had her phone knocked from her hands during the confrontation, while others beat drums loudly as Fontaine tried to speak.
University of Winnipeg President Lloyd Axworthy said he hasn't seen a protest like this at the university in a very long time.
“I think it was orchestrated. I think they came deliberately to disrupt and that was the plan,” said Axworthy. “I think they were looking for confrontation not for conversation.”
Later in the afternoon, Axworthy released a full statement about the events, calling them disruptive and regretful.
“Frankly, they don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said.
Fontaine said he was saddened by the confrontation and added he believes he does stand up for the environment and First Nations.
“Have I been satisfied with everything that I’ve learned? Absolutely not. Have I expressed those views with industry? Absolutely,” he said. “[The protest] was not one of our shining moments as an aboriginal community.”
Some students were also disappointed with the result.
“He shouldn’t have cancelled this meeting, you know. We came here to ask him these grilling questions that need to be answered, and they weren’t answered today,” said U of W student Sadie Lavoie.
University officials said the event would be rescheduled to a later date.
Read University of Winnipeg President Lloyd Axworthy's full statement
The University of Winnipeg is located on Treaty One land in the heart of the Metis Nation within one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in Canada. We nurture an inclusive campus that respects all students, faculty, staff and visitors.
In 2011, The University of Winnipeg changed its governance structure to create an Indigenous Advisory Circle which offers us guidance as we continue to learn from each other.
The University of Winnipeg was honoured to invite respected First Nation leader and former National Chief of the Assembly of first Nations, Dr. Phil Fontaine, to share his insights on critical issues facing Canadians today, including the issue of resource extraction and development in a manner that balances the needs of Indigenous people, protects the environment, and allows for private sector engagement.
We were encouraged that there was such a strong student, faculty and community interest in hearing Dr. Fontaine’s speak. Our Convocation Hall was standing room only. It is deeply unfortunate that today a small group of protestors disrupted this important lecture.
Within the Indigenous traditions, all members of the community have a voice. In a university environment, we expect that people may disagree and hold strong views. We also expect that everyone is given the opportunity to state those views and to be heard. The protestors today employed intentionally disruptive tactics to silence all voices but their own. As a university, we regret that an opportunity for meaningful and respectful dialogue was prevented earlier today.
The university is working with Dr. Fontaine to reschedule his lecture on campus as soon as possible.