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Phil Fontaine’s political machine stalls in Assembly of First Nations race

The Story


"Too white for me," says outspoken leadership candidate Bill Wilson of British Columbia. Wilson is commenting on his rival Phil Fontaine's highly organized campaign. In the race to be the next national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Fontaine and his team, dubbed the Phil Fontaine Machine, are criticized for being too white, too slick and too cozy with Ottawa. Fontaine, the clear frontrunner coming into the race to lead Canada's biggest native organization, is struggling from an "anybody but Phil Fontaine" backlash. As Fontaine's fellow candidates drop out to throw their support behind dark-horse candidate Ovide Mercredi, the race quickly becomes a popularity contest. 

Medium: Television
Program: The Journal
Broadcast Date: June 11, 1991
Guest(s): Phil Fontaine
Reporter: Jerry Thompson
Duration: 4:58

Did You know?


. Phil Fontaine lost the AFN leadership to Ovide Mercredi, a Cree lawyer and Manitoba regional chief of the AFN, on the fourth ballot.
. The leadership vote took over 15 hours with almost 500 native chiefs from across Canada choosing from six candidates. Fontaine lost despite enjoying a comfortable lead after the first ballot. He had received 164 votes out of the 282 needed to win.

. Fontaine and Mercredi were both soft-spoken native leaders from Manitoba, fighting for constitutional recognition of native self-government. But that's where the similarities ended. Mercredi advocated a tough stance against the federal government, while Fontaine supported greater co-operation with Ottawa.

. After Fontaine's surprising defeat in the 1991 AFN leadership race, he accused Mercredi of betrayal. Fontaine accused the newly elected leader of reneging on a deal that would have seen Mercredi, the underdog, bow out and throw his support behind Fontaine.
. After his AFN defeat, Fontaine returned to his job as grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, a position he held until 1997.

. The other candidates for AFN leadership included: Bill Wilson, the AFN's regional chief in British Columbia; Neil Sterritt, B.C. chief and land claims activist; Michael Mitchell, Mohawk chief from the Akwesasne reserve; and William Montour, chief of the Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario.

. The Assembly of First Nations, established in 1982, is the biggest and most powerful native organization in Canada. It currently (2005) represents 700,000 native people. The national chief acts on behalf of Canada's 633 First Nations.


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