Natives behind dispute 'go way back'
Leaders Coon Come, Mercredi cut from the same cloth

National Post
Friday, September 22, 2000


Matthew Coon Come, leader of the Assembly of First Nations and...

Chuck Stoody, The Canadian Press

Ovide Mercredi, a former leader of the same group, share a common approach to championing aboriginal rights.

Ian Smith, The Vancouver Sun

Matthew Coon Come and Ovide Mercredi, the pair of aboriginal leaders behind a dispute that has pitted the Burnt Church Indian band against Canada's fisheries department, share a common approach to asserting indigenous rights.

"I'm not confrontational, neither is Matthew," Mr. Mercredi says. "But Canadians are not used to seeing forceful Indians. Every time a forceful Indian is seen by Canadians they think 'this guy is too confrontational.' We stand up for our rights, that is true. Matthew will be the greatest champion our people have ever seen."

Mr. Coon Come is the leader of the Assembly of First Nations, the national lobby group for aboriginals. Mr. Mercredi, the former national chief, is his special advisor at Burnt Church. Both are Crees, although Mr. Coon Come is from northern Quebec, Mr. Mercredi from Manitoba.

"We go way back," Mr. Mercredi said yesterday. "We're brothers."

When Mr. Mercredi was first elected national chief in 1991, Mr. Coon Come called him "a good listener," and "more than tough enough ... I have a feeling that he will be right there on the front lines dealing directly with the people affected."

Three years later, however, when Mr. Mercredi was running for re-election, Mr. Coon Come campaigned against him, arguing he was an autocrat and out of touch with the grassroots. Mr. Mercredi was elected anyway, and excuses Mr. Coon Come, saying: "Everybody makes a mistake."

Both are firmly non-violent (Mr. Mercredi is a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and has visited India) but use the language of militancy, calling federal fisheries officers "troops" and warning that the federal position is stirring tempers across the country.

Mr. Mercredi concedes the two are cut from the same cloth, but he said Mr. Coon Come is a more cautious tactician. "There are similarities, there's no doubt about it, but there are major differences, too," Mr. Mercredi said.

"One of the differences between him and I, at least this is my own assessment, is that he will exhaust every avenue for peaceful resolution before he calls on political action. In other words, our people don't only have a champion at the helm of the organization but they also have someone who is careful about when he fights."

Mr. Mercredi led the AFN for six years, a time that brought a chilling of the relationship between Ottawa and First Nations and a growing aboriginal militancy exemplified by the occupation at Ipperwash park in Ontario, during which a native protester was killed by a police tactical team, and the standoff at Gustafsen Lake in British Columbia.

When he was replaced in 1997 by Phil Fontaine, a moderate by comparison, the AFN's relations with government improved. But Mr. Fontaine was seen by many chiefs as too close to the Liberal government, contributing to his downfall last summer.

Mr. Coon Come's election, and the re-emergence of Mr. Mercredi, mark an end to the brief d*tente that held during Mr. Fontaine's tenure and, if fisheries officers begin seizing native lobster traps today, possibly a return to the chaos 1990's Oka crisis.