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AFN Elects New Chief

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      OCTOBER 1997      v27 n03 p09  
Phil Fontaine
Phil Fontaine at his first official
appearance as AFN Grand Chief.
Nearly 18 hours after voting began on July 30, 1997, Manitoba leader Phil Fontaine emerged as Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Grand Chief. His victory came as the result of four hard-fought ballots.

Early in the day, the first ballot saw Ovide Mercredi with 127 votes, a one-vote lead over Fontaine who had 126 votes and a four-vote lead over Wendy Grant-John who had 123 votes. Larry Sault and Joe Dion trailed the three and Bob Manuel was forced to drop out, being the sixth-place finisher.

The second ballot saw Fontaine take the lead with Grant-John a close second place. Mercredi's support was falling, but he remained on the ballot. Following a substantial decrease in votes on the third ballot, Mercredi placed his remaining support behind Grant-John.

Late in the night, a fourth ballot gave Fontaine a commanding lead, but he lacked the 60 percent support that he needed for a clear victory. In attempt to prevent a fifth ballot, Grant-John and Fontaine met behind closed doors. Upon their emergence from this meeting, Grant-John conceded, based on Fontaine's pledge to honour the ongoing treaty process in British Columbia.

Wearing a traditional headdress and wrapped in a Coast Salish blanket, Phil Fontaine was sworn in as the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Fontaine addressed the chiefs, saying, "When we demonstrate solidarity and unity, we're speaking not just to each other but to the nation-to the world."

Fontaine was born on September 20, 1944 to Jean Baptiste and Agnes Fontaine at the Fort Alexander Reserve, now the Sagkeeng Anichinabe First Nation, located 80 miles north of Winnipeg, Manitoba. While Chief of his community, Fontaine was one of the first leaders to bring public attention to the issue of abuse in residential schools. He also worked to establish local control of education and a treatment centre for alcoholism in his community.

More recently, Fontaine has served three terms as the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC). The AMC is composed of 60 Manitoba First Nations and represents 90,000 people. As Grand Chief of the AMC, Fontaine was instrumental in producing an agreement implementing the inherent right to self-government in 1994. The agreement provides for the dismantling of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and recognizes First Nation government.

Fontaine has two children and two grandchildren and lives in Winnipeg with his wife. He played hockey for the Sagkeeng Old Timers for many years and remains physically fit by jogging on a daily basis.

In his first official appearance as Grand Chief, at the signing of the Fiscal Relations Table at Wanuskewin, Fontaine reiterated his pledge for national unity. "I believe in working together to find good solutions to the problems we, as First Nations people, face," he said.

It was fitting that his first official appearance was in Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan chiefs had remained unanimous in their support of Fontaine during the AFN elections, voting in a block. Following Fontaine's victory, Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Chief Blaine Favel reaffirmed Saskatchewan's support of Fontaine.

I think that Phil, with his broad breadth of support across Canada has the ability to unify the Chiefs, to have them stand firm on some policy issues, and go united to the Government of Canada," said Chief Favel. "So, I think it will be a fresh beginning for us and we look forward to working with Grand Chief Phil Fontaine."