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Phil Fontaine (Della Rollins)
Phil Fontaine (Della Rollins)

Leadership: Phil Fontaine

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"People are angry for a reason," says Phil Fontaine, 64, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. "Poverty is an onerous burden."

Recent examples of what triggers that anger are easily found, such as Health Canada's shipment of dozens of body bags to remote Manitoba reserves hit by swine flu earlier this year. Native leaders had requested funding to organize their fight against H1N1 and to ensure preventive kits and medicine were at hand.

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"Regardless of the inclusion of body bags sent to first nation communities and whether they may be part of normal medical supplies sent to nursing stations, the fact is that more effective planning is required. The minister has known for months that first nation peoples are at high risk due to unacceptable levels of poverty. First nations require full and immediate disclosure of the pandemic plan as this will reassure our people that our communities will be prepared to combat H1N1 this flu season," Mr. Fontaine says.

Impoverished conditions and lack of opportunity continue to exist in many of the 663 aboriginal communities, he adds.

"The anger and frustration are most evident in our young people," Mr. Fontaine says. "We have a young population - 50 per cent of our population is under the age of 25 - so we're looking at an incredible resource here with huge potential. The responsibility that we have together with government and the private sector is to harness this incredible energy into something positive."

However, despite the latest controversy over body bags, Mr. Fontaine is encouraged by what he's witnessed in the past five years. He says that whenever native people have been given a fair chance to make a life for themselves, the results have been impressive, so he's optimistic that higher education will bring about change.

"Fifty years ago we might have had, at most, 10 first nations students in university in all of Canada. Today there are close to 30,000," Mr. Fontaine says. "That speaks to the incredible talent, intelligence and genius that exists in our communities. It's important that they take every opportunity to make a life for themselves free from the burdens of poverty. It's a big challenge - not just for first nations youth but for all young people."

One of 12 children, Mr. Fontaine lost his father when he was just seven and when he was in his first year of residential school. His mother, the first aboriginal woman to be elected to a band council in Canada, never remarried and struggled to build a life for her 10 surviving children.

After suffering physical and sexual abuse at the residential school, Mr. Fontaine was motivated to enter politics in 1973 as the elected chief of his reserve. He went on to serve three terms as national chief, responsible for 800,000 native people. In that role, he helped negotiate the largest and most comprehensive settlement agreement in Canadian history - the 2005 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, valued at more than $5-billion.

"At one time, there were 80 lawyers around the table, with each one representing unique and special interests, and we were able to conclude the negotiations in a way that did justice to the survivors and was fair to the defendants," Mr. Fontaine says. "Negotiation is the most effective way to effect change but first there must be mutual respect. You can't leave someone bleeding on the floor. Both parties have to emerge at the end believing that they've won something."

Growing up the way he did was "humbling," but Mr. Fontaine says it made it easier for him to do what he's done since he could never place himself above someone else.

"I've never forgotten where I'm from," says Mr. Fontaine. "I'm an Ojibway from Sagkeeng First Nation [130 kilometres north of Winnipeg] I'm a res guy … I grew up on a reserve. My important life experiences were from my life on the reserve."

Since retiring as national chief in July, Mr. Fontaine has started his own Ottawa-based advisory firm, Ishkonigan Inc., which means reserve or Indian land, and has taken on a role as special adviser with the Royal Bank of Canada to help deepen its relationships with aboriginal communities, businesses and governments. His role with RBC will focus on native participation in the 2010 Olympic torch relay, the environment and aboriginal economies.

"It's critical that our young people know that they are an important part of Canada," Mr. Fontaine says. "They are the future of our people. There isn't anything they can't do if they put their minds to it."

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