Yahoo! Exclusive: Chief Phil Fontaine expresses hope for hunger strike, Idle No More protests

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Chief Phil Fontaine, recent Order of Canada recipient and three-term former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, is perhaps one of Canada's most experienced aboriginal leaders. First elected chief of his Sagkeeng First Nation north of Winnipeg in 1973, Fontaine became first a provincial leader, then a player on the national stage. He successfully concluded negotiations with Ottawa that led to the $5-billion residential schools settlement.

Now a private consultant helping facilitate connections between business and First Nations, Fontaine on Tuesday visited Attiwapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, whose hunger strike on Victoria Island in the Ottawa River, helped push Prime Minister Stephen Harper to agree to a meeting with First Nations leaders this Friday.

In a one-on-one interview with Yahoo! Canada News, Fontaine endorses Spence's controversial protest, voices optimism that Friday's meeting could produce real progress and expresses hope the grassroots Idle No More Movement, which has mounted highly visible protests and blockades, could eventually work with the elected aboriginal leadership it's shunned so far.

Yahoo! Canada News: Can you tell me a little about your visit?

Fontaine: I was accompanied by (Toronto investor/philanthropist) Dr. Michael Dan and Bernie Farber, who used to work (as executive director) for the Canadian Jewish Congress but now works with Dr. Michael Dan on hydro development and First Nations partnerships.

Y! Canada: What was the meeting with Chief Spence about?

Fontaine: I was there, as was Dr. Dan and Bernie Farber, to support Chief Spence, a courageous individual who has demonstrated real determination and commitment to advancing First Nations interest, particularly as they relate to treaty rights, aboriginal rights and First Nations poverty.

Y! Canada: How do you feel about the idea of the hunger strike itself, especially continuing it as long as it's gone on?

Fontaine: To go back to my point about Chief Theresa Spence, this is really a very courageous action on her part. It speaks to her great determination and commitment and it's a risky proposition. It's unfortunate that one who has belief that they have to resort to this kind of action to convince Canada to come to the table to talk about important First Nations issues.

Y! Canada: What hopes do you have for this meeting on Friday?

Fontaine: I believe one has to be hopeful about such important meetings. I'm not absolutely certain that we will achieve all that needs to be done. I mean, it's a one-day meeting. It's been portrayed as a continuation of the First Nations gathering of Jan. 24, 2012. I'm hoping we will be able to see some real outcomes from the meeting.

Y! Canada: Are you expecting some kinds of commitments at that meeting from the government?

Fontaine: I don't know any better than most but based on what I've read in terms of news articles and the like, I think the government is prepared to agree to a framework and process to deal with treaty implementation, to deal with aboriginal rights and to talk about economic development. I'm not sure what can come from the last point, or the last agenda item, because there's some very serious concerns about Bill C-38 (one of two government omnibus budget-implementation bills, the other being C-45), for example, that factors in very seriously and not necessarily in the most reassuring way in terms of aboriginal and treaty rights as they relate to land and resources and water and the environment.

Y! Canada: So there's no hope, then, of getting them to unwind C-38 (and C-45) and break those things out into separate items? They've've passed that bill, right?

Fontaine: This would be an incredible achievement if the meeting resulted in the Harper government retreating from its position in Bill C-38 and C-45, spending cuts and the recent statement on funding for political organizations. That would be an incredible success story. But I don't think we'll see that out of Friday's meeting.

Y! Canada: What do you think of the leak of the Attiwapiskat auditor's report and I guess the official release of it yesterday (Monday)? What do you make of the timing of all that?

Fontaine: I don't think it's a healthy approach to establishing good relations. It was completely unnecessary to leak the audit. It's unfinished business. This is the result of 10 days of work; five days in Attiwapiskat and five days outside. To address six years of crisis management on the part of the Attiwapiskat First Nations government is a bit unfair in my view.

Y! Canada: Let me get to the Idle No More Movement. How do you feel about their approach and the fact that they exist as a separate movement from the traditional First Nations leadership channels, and about their tactics?

Fontaine: This is the result of some real frustration and some real anxiety and real concern on the community level, or the grassroots level if you will. Concern about C-45, concern about C-38, poverty-related issues, concern about the environment. This is where I get a little anxious because there seems to be a disconnect — and I hope there isn't — between the elected leadership and the grassroots movement. I think both can work together. The approach might be different but the issues are the same and the challenges are the same. There's common cause. I hope both sides will come together and fashion very determined, very focused, very organized plan of action going forward.

[ Last week's One-on-One: Aboriginal Ring of Fire director Michael Fox ]

Y! Canada: It seems to me the Idle No More Movement doesn't want to be associated with the traditional leadership. Do you feel maybe they don't have faith in it; do you feel that they (aboriginal leaders) haven't done the job up to now?

Fontaine: Well that's been the suggestion from some quarters. But the point I make here is I don't seen any reason why they can't work together. We're dealing with a common cause. As I said, the tactics and approach might be different but the outcomes ought to be something that both can live with.

Y! Canada: You've had 40 years experience dealing with these files and we've been talking about the same stuff for as long as I can remember. I'm just wondering what you think, based on your interactions with the various stakeholders, what's the main obstacle to making some breakthroughs on these big issues?

Fontaine: I think it would be wrong to suggest that there hasn't been progress, that we haven't achieved success on a number of fronts, because we have. We have more First Nations students in universities and colleges, significantly more, close to 30,000. We have between 20,000 and 30,000 small businesses owned and managed by aboriginal people in various sectors and in a number we're doing very well. There's one issue that we haven't been able to resolve and that's First Nation's poverty in all of its manifestations. It includes poor housing, unsafe drinking water, poor access to quality health care, high suicide rates, too many First Nation communities without schools, too many communities with schools that are in a terrible state of disrepair and the fact that there's unfair funding in education and child welfare. We have a disproportionate incarceration rate.