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Former Assembly of First Nations chief Phil Fontaine (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Former Assembly of First Nations chief Phil Fontaine (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

The Lunch

First Nations leader Phil Fontaine: An angry radical embraces compromise Add to ...

At 30 years old, Phil Fontaine was an angry man.

A survivor of sexual abuse at a residential school, separated from his parents at a young age, forbidden from speaking his native language, the Anishinaabe from Manitoba was elected at the age of 29 as chief for the Sagkeeng First Nation, situated east of Lake Winnipeg. By his own account, he was impatient and belligerent, especially in his dealings with government bureaucrats.

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The former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations mellowed over the years. He became convinced he could do more for aboriginal people through compromise and pragmatic action than angry radicalism. But he remains passionate about the need for Canada to address the appalling poverty among First Nations people. He sees resource development as one way to end that poverty.

Now 69, Mr. Fontaine works with some of this country’s largest companies – the Royal Bank of Canada and TransCanada Corp. – to advance their interests among aboriginal Canadians and to advise them on how to support First Nations communities and businesses.

For that business-friendly approach, he faces the wrath of some aboriginal activists who accuse him of selling out to corporate Canada.

After The Globe and Mail revealed he was working with TransCanada Corp. on its proposed Energy East pipeline, he was shouted down at a planned speech at the University of Winnipeg this winter, with one protester accusing him of collaborating with “the enemy that’s destroying this earth.” While attending a meeting of the Maritimes Energy Association in Halifax in March, a Mi’kmaq woman told him he was not welcome on Mi’kmaq territory.

Mr. Fontaine’s business activities – including his work with RBC, a major lender to oil sands companies – create a conflict of interest as he represents TransCanada to First Nations communities, said Clayton Thomas-Muller, a Cree from northern Manitoba who works with the Polaris Institute, an Ottawa-based advocacy group.

Mr. Fontaine shrugs off those personal attacks, reflecting the grit of a battle-scarred veteran who survived and prospered for years in the rough world of aboriginal politics. “It isn’t personal – no more than the insults and opposition and criticism I experienced when I was chief in my community, grand chief in Manitoba, or national chief for nine years,” he said over lunch at a French bistro in Ottawa’s trendy Byward Market. “It’s to be expected – one shouldn’t be surprised and neither should one be offended.”

He said his role on Energy East is to ensure First Nations communities have the information needed to make informed decisions.

It’s hard to picture this soft-spoken, white-haired businessman as an angry young radical. (Though plenty of young activists of his generation later prospered in the business world.)

He grew up on Manitoba’s Sagkeeng reserve at a time when government and churches were essentially practising cultural genocide. As a young boy, he was sent to a residential school, where he suffered physical and sexual abuse. He saw his parents and siblings at most once a week when they could make a Sunday visit.

It took years for his anger to subside.

“It wasn’t a moment like St. Paul on the road to Damascus. It was more gradual . . . I just came to a point when I realized this was unhealthy and I changed. I became more reasonable, respectful, tried to deal with people as reasonably as I could.”

Mr. Fontaine certainly understands the sense of grievance and exclusion that is prompting many aboriginal Canadians to embrace more radical movements like Idle No More, and to threaten confrontation if resource development proceeds over their objections. But he says resource projects can be a boon to aboriginal Canadians, who have been largely excluded from the country’s past economic development.

“The reality is for most First Nation communities, that they live in resource rich parts of the country that offer very little alternate opportunity. And we cannot make decisions that doom First Nations to a life of perpetual poverty. Resource development can been done appropriately and in an acceptable manner – that’s the challenge.”

First Nations hold a wide variety of views on development, and various communities differ in their capacity to work with resource companies and governments.

“When it comes to aboriginal business development and creation of wealth in aboriginal communities, it’s a relatively new experience not just for the communities but for industry, for the banking sector. And so both sides are learning,” he said. “And given the urgency attached to resource development, this new learning experience has been pretty steep for both sides.”

The federal government is encouraging First Nations to become partners in development, and promising to do a better job consulting them on project development and environmental and safety issues for projects being planned on their traditional territory.

But there are limits that must be respected, Mr. Fontaine said.

“One thing is very clear, I can’t think of a single First Nations community that would engage in any development that would compromise the earth, the environment, the water.”

Well past the age when many retire, Mr. Fontaine stays fit by working out at Ottawa’s downtown YMCA. He eats sparingly, having only a bowl of fish soup for lunch at Benny’s Bistro. The fish is pickerel – appropriate fare for a Manitoban whose people traditionally relied on the pickerel for sustenance but, in this case, done as a bouillabaisse.

Mr. Fontaine lives in Ottawa but says “home” is still the Sagkeeng reserve, where much of his extended family still resides. He keeps up a hectic work and travel schedule, including his role as founder and president of Ishkonigan Consulting and Mediation Inc., whose team includes his son, Michael, and former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant.

In addition to his work with Royal Bank and TransCanada, he sits on the boards of New Brunswick Power, the provincially owned utility; of Chieftain Metals Group, which is developing mineral properties in northwestern B.C., and of Avalon Rare Metals Inc. He also represents the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in their negotiations with Ottawa for the return of the former Ipperwash military base to their reserve.

After three terms as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, he has some sympathy for Shawn Atleo, who succeeded him in 2009. Chief Atleo resigned earlier this month facing an angry backlash over his support for the Conservative government’s proposed legislation to reform First Nations’ education. Ottawa has since shelved the bill.

“Mr. Atleo was in a difficult position,” Mr. Fontaine said. “These divisions have been around since the organization was first established. And one’s job as a national chief is to bring these divisions together, and there are times when you are more successful than other times. And that’s just the way it plays out.”

One of his most satisfying victories at AFN leader was the successful negotiation of the Indian Residential Schools Agreement, which established compensation and a truth and reconciliation commission. He also won a historic apology from the Conservative government for the country’s residential schools policy.

Another gratifying moment was his private meeting with Pope Benedict in Rome in 2009, when he received an apology on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church.

His reconciliation with the Church is also deeply personal. Two years ago, he and his brothers adopted Winnipeg Archbishop James Weisgerber into their family and the Anishinaabe community in a traditional ceremony.

“This is our way of expressing our commitment to reconciliation, and a path to healing and forgiveness,” he said.

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Phil Fontaine is a walking encyclopedia on the indicators that underscore the Third World conditions faced by many aboriginal Canadians. Over the course of our lunch, he rhymes off these figures, which we offer as Phil’s Index:

Shortage of housing units on First Nations reserves: 85,000 units.

Percentage of communities that need a new school: 47.

FN reserves with no school: 40.

Percentage of schools currently requiring major repairs: 74.

First Nations communities in Canada that were under a drinking water advisory: 116 (roughly one in five communities).

Aboriginal children in “care” on and off reserve: 27,000.

The funding gap for on-reserve schools compared to public schools in the rest of the country: Between $3,000 and $4,000 per child.

But it’s not all bleak:

First Nations’ owned and managed business in Canada: 40,000

FN students in college, trade school or university versus 50 years ago: 30,000 v 50.

Value of resource projects forecast by government of Canada over next decade, most of which touches FN traditional territory: $650-billion

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