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Matthew, we hardly knew you
So the Coon Come era of Assembly of First Nations politics has come to an end.
Though he tried hard to take his abrupt electoral dismissal with good grace, we could tell it was not easy. Going right from the stage where he'd made his farewell speech directly to the Shaw Conference Centre's Room 13 to face the press was a tough task. He fielded just two questions before something snapped. Everyone in the room could see it.
Suddenly, the press conference was over and he was out of there. Emotion clouded his face as he hastily made his exit.
It was not easy to watch this decent man get treated so roughly. But that's politics.
The night before, we visited the feast held in his honor by the James Bay Crees at Edmonton's Westin Hotel. There, relaxed and among friends, the real Matthew Coon Come shone through. He spoke of his grandmother's vision of a time when the rivers would run backwards and the Cree people would have to pay for water and the land would be bare of trees. All of these things came to pass when logging companies clear-cut the land.
He shared the wisdom of his father, the hunter who lives on the land in the traditional way of his people. His father's advice was that as well as looking forward you must look back to see where you've been so you don't lose your way.
At the press conference after his defeat, he said something very revealing. After almost three years of staying away from biblical references in the name of political safety, this devoutly Christian man seemed to suddenly realize that that part of his life was over. He compared the state of Indigenous people in Canada to that of the Israelites fleeing Egypt under the leadership of Moses and then turning around and embracing the unpleasant but familiar oppression of the pharaoh.
"This agenda Phil Fontaine is advocating is one of dependency," he said. "I can say this now. It's like going back to Egypt where everything was 'good.'"
During his interview with this publication at the start of the campaign, Coon Come said he would continue to fight for the rights of his people whether he won or lost the election.
"It's all I've ever done. I don't know if I could do any other job," he said.
We know he'll be back in some capacity and First Nations people will be the richer for it. He said after his defeat that he looked forward to getting back to the land with his father and spending more time with his children. But the time will come when he will be back on the political scene.
The AFN seems to devour its leaders: Ovide Mercredi in 1997, Phil Fontaine in 2000 and now Coon Come. We believe it's because the AFN is funded by government and indirectly controlled by government and is not yet a true First Nation institution.
It has been plagued by division. Not by "diversity," although that's the spin that's put on it. Opposing factions within the AFN have treated each other shabbily in order to gain power and influence. In the fight against colonialism, that is a luxury the AFN cannot afford.
Phil Fontaine has pledged to do something about that. We hope he will be true to his word. We hope that he has learned some valuable lessons during his three years in the political wilderness. We think that some of those lessons were possible because Mercredi and Coon Come and, of course, Roberta Jamieson were part of the First Nation political landscape.
The organization was revitalized in Edmonton. More people than ever before were there and engaged. The trick will be to keep them engaged and that means some monumental changes will have to occur.
We sincerely congratulate Phil Fontaine on his victory and look forward to a new age in First Nation politics where a free and unfettered and necessarily critical but fair press will not be seen as the enemy or as something to be manipulated or ignored.
He promised as much during his pre-election interview with us and we're looking forward to seeing what that promise will look lik.
We wish Matthew Coon Come ell and hope he will find peace, that someday he will be back to share his considerable talents for the benefit of all First Nations people.
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