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An unfortunate time to protest

Shouting down Fontaine during speech at U of W didn't help aboriginals' cause

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Thanks to a deeply ingrained culture of consensus-based decision-making, group meetings in First Nations communities have been known to drag on for hours, as everybody in attendance gets to have a say.

To an outsider, this may seem honourable but inefficient. The European version of democracy involves appointing a small number of people to speak on behalf of everybody else.

Given the traditional emphasis on inclusion, it's ironic to see former national chief Phil Fontaine booed off a University of Winnipeg stage by First Nations protesters who helped perpetuate a stereotype far worse than that of a never-ending community meeting.

This was unfortunate. The only thing many Winnipeggers took home from Fontaine's abbreviated U of W appearance was yet another image of the so-called Angry Indian, forever unappeasable and unassimilable into supposedly polite Canadian society.

Fontaine, who spent three stints each as the leader of both the Assembly of First Nations and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, is now employed as a liaison between TransCanada Pipeline and about 180 indigenous communities located along the proposed path of the Energy East Pipelines, which would carry crude 4,500 kilometres from Alberta to New Brunswick.

When he tried to speak at the U of W on Wednesday, he was shouted down by protesters who hold the view it's unethical to work for the oil industry -- and pointless to even engage Big Oil.

In a province where unreconstituted racists will seize on any excuse to dismiss legitimate indigenous concerns about upholding treaty rights, economic development and environmental protection, this was counterproductive.

Don't just take that from a white guy. Although Manitoba's indigenous community appears divided over what happened Wednesday, some of its most prominent leaders are upset.

Justice Murray Sinclair issued a condemnation of the protesters' tactics. Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, who attended the U of W event, said he wanted to hear what Fontaine had to say and said he was disappointed his predecessor didn't get a chance to speak.

"If we're going to make progress, we have to develop some level of restraint in places where difficult discussions need to happen," said Nepinak, who is anything but a softie when it comes to accommodation. He led an Idle No More walkout in Ottawa last year and refused to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Nepinak said there's a use in having a leader like Fontaine working from the inside to achieve many of the same results desired by protesters pounding drums outside the corridors of power.

"Phil has made a career of getting into difficult spaces and for that I respect him," said Nepinak, who offered to help co-ordinate another Fontaine speaking date.

Wab Kinew, the U of W's co-ordinator of indigenous inclusion, had the bizarre experience of being in Fort McMurray, where he's emceeing a conference on First Nations and the oilsands, while his friend Fontaine was getting shouted off the stage at his place of employment.

Kinew said he found the protest inappropriate. "Even if you're opposed to resource development, the change you seek isn't going to happen solely by protesting. Yeah, that's part of it -- it puts pressure on companies and institutions. But somebody has to work in the role of (liaison)," Kinew said.

"Wouldn't you want someone who has a proven track record for doing a lot of good for native communities to be at the table?"

Fontaine, of course, negotiated the national residential schools settlement, which in turn led to the truth and reconciliation commission. But just like it will take a generation or more for blacks in South Africa to fully forgive whites for the horrors of apartheid, it isn't realistic to expect First Nations to immediately forgive the Government of Canada for our own cultural genocide.

Maybe Fontaine serves as a lightning rod for continuing indigenous anger over both the residential schools and economic inequality. In Manitoba, home to some of Canada's most impoverished First Nations, that inequality is especially pronounced.

When it comes to education, health and income, the white-versus-red divide is certainly more pronounced in Manitoba than in Alberta, where more First Nations have a slice of the economic benefits afforded from resource extraction.

And this is where another irony lies: One of Manitoba's major problems is a lack of co-operation, never mind the sharing of wealth, between the mining industry and isolated First Nations.

How does that get resolved? By more engagement and inclusion.

First Nations have every reason to be skeptical of the oil industry. But that doesn't preclude the possibility of reaching a consensus about development -- however long the communal decision-making may take.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 24, 2014 A8

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Updated on Friday, January 24, 2014 at 9:56 AM CST: Replaces photo

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on Citytv’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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