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The New Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Ovide Mercredi, will likely preside over a more united political organization than before.
Breakaway bands from the prairies (at least sixty from Saskatchewan and some fifteen from Alberta) are now "back in the fold."
The bands pulled out of the A.F.N. in 1985, in a policy and personality dispute with Erasmus and the Assembly. They formed their own organization called the "Prairie Treaty Nations Alliance."
They believed neither Erasmus nor the A.F.N. were paying enough attention to the treaties or the critical role they play in protecting treaty Indians on the prairies.
Interviewed at the 12th Assembly in Winnipeg, where Mercredi was elected over five other candidates on June 11, Saskatchewan Indian leaders expressed the belief that past divisions which kept them out of the A.F.N. for six years, are now behind them.
The Chief of the F.S.I.N., Roland Crowe, noted that every candidate who sought the leadership this time mentioned the importance of treaty rights. "And that's a far cry from previous years after the departure of Dr. David Ahenakew from the A.F.N."
Ahenakew was Chief of the F.S.I.N. from 1969 to 1979 and head of the A.F.N. for one term, from 1982 to 1985. In his bid for re-election, he was defeated by Erasmus in a bitter campaign in 1985. It was all part of the rift which Ahenakew himself also believes is now over.
He says, at one time, the A.F.N. placed "all our eggs in the constitutional basket. That was a terrible mistake. We had become a one-issue organization. As I listen to the candidates, they're not talking too much anymore about the constitution or Aboriginal title rights. It seems now that the treaties and treaty rights are the high priority. I hope they don't reverse the whole trend again."
Ahenakew adds, "I think its accepted we've gone over that hurdle and there's not going to be any real problems in terms of fragmentation and splits in the national association."
But even without the A.F.N., Ahenakew says the prairie Chiefs have done "a hell of a lot, even though in isolation, in terms of coming to grips with their land entitlements, treaty and tax exemption rights in the province. We were able to focus on these social and economic matters. And, as a result, we've advanced. But we could have advanced a hell of a lot more together with the national association."
So generally, the mood among the Saskatchewan delegation was up-beat. For example, the chief of the Starblanket reserve, Irvin Starr says, "I think we came back in to the A.F.N. with good faith and goodwill. And I think we are trying to deal with the issues nationally. And we know that we have to have solidarity and unity. So we came back to the A. F.N.,not because of only the elections but for the fact we have to deal with issues on the basis of strength and unity.
"Like Ahenakew, Starr also believes the Saskatchewan bands did "some good things" in the province, even while outside the AFN. "But we still need the support nationally on some of the treaty issues, as well. We're glad to be back and try to address these issues on a national basis from now on."
While all six leadership candidates mentioned the importance of treaty rights it must have been music to the ears of the Saskatchewan Chiefs to hear it from the victor, Ovide Mercredi. His campaign literature promised to work for a country that will respect and implement those rights.
And in his acceptance speech, Mercredi told delegates, "As your national leader, I will not allow this government or any other government that follows it, to continue its wilful violations of our treaty rights and of our aboriginal rights."
Mercredi also went to some length to ensure that the inevitable wounds of a hard fought election, heal quickly. He paid meticulous tribute to each of the losing candidates, by name, citing some unique leadership characteristic they possessed.
"This is a time to demonstrate in no uncertain terms, to the Canadian government," the new Grand Chief added, "that the First Nations in this country stand united and that they all support their national organization, the Assembly of First Nations."
Overall the 12th assembly probably drew more attention than any one previous. In addition to registered delegates, hundreds of observers crowded the big hall in the Winnipeg Convention Centre to standing room only.
Journalists, both Indian and non-Indian, were everywhere. When it came down to a two-way race, they followed Mercredi and Fontaine everywhere, with their cameras, microphones and note-books. The speeches were even carried "live" on the "Newsworld" CBC cable channel.