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Nelson new regional chief

Militant activist leads southern area

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Drums celebrated the election on Thursday of Manitoba's most controversial and militant aboriginal activist as the province's new southern grand chief.

But the victory of Terry Nelson was a squeaker.

It took four ballots to nail down the leadership, and, even after Nelson led a slate of five candidates vote after vote, the final victory was wrung out of the narrowest of margins: 16 votes against 14 from his nearest challenger, former Manitoba chief Norman Bone.

In one of his first interviews after the final ballot, Nelson sounded less victorious than chastened.

'They didn't elect me the boss. I'm their worker'

-- Terry Nelson

"They didn't elect me the boss," he said. "I'm their worker."

That's a reference to the 32 chiefs who were eligible to cast votes and a reflection of the power structure of the Southern Chiefs' Organization (SCO). The vote was held at Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, about 80 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

The job of grand chief is a spokesman, a chief's chief. Nelson believes he's got work to do to earn the trust of half of the chiefs who didn't vote for him.

"It was close and I have to prove myself and one of the first things is the fear factor has to go away. They've got a lot of expectations," he said of his new bosses. He ran on a platform of working toward the creation of five urban reserves in Winnipeg and economic independence for First Nations.

But he said his first days in office will be tied up with chiefs and federal Aboriginal and Affairs and Northern Development officials on administrative issues.

His election followed the ouster of former SCO leader Murray Clearsky over a $10,000 spending scandal.

Off the election floor, veteran observers of aboriginal politics expressed surprise and then suggested the election is a signal that says more about the chiefs than about Nelson.

One observer said privately, "The focus shouldn't be on Terry. Terry is Terry. The focus has to be on the chiefs. You have to ask why did this rather placid group of southern chiefs get a bulldog?"

Manitoba's senior grand chief, Derek Nepinak of the provincewide Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, which represents 64 First Nations, said clearly the election is a signal to government, both the NDP in Manitoba and the Conservatives in Ottawa.

"For them to go with Terry represents a new energy and it speaks to a lot of frustration (with) both levels of government... he's bringing in a new element that people often perceive as threatening and that (reflects) their level of frustration," Nepinak said.

Nepinak expressed concern reconciling Nelson's divisive style of politics with the advocacy role under a tripartite unity accord led by AMC with SCO and its northern counterpart, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak. The three groups work together on provincewide social and political issues. Pressing issues include land claims and treaty rights, the plight of missing and murdered women and a decision to hold back the release of the Hughes inquiry recommendations into the death of Phoenix Sinclair.

Once called Manitoba's angriest Indian, Nelson has a track record that's probably unique among Canada's aboriginal leaders. His passions are treaty rights and social injustice, but his style courts controversy and headlines.

He's fought court battles over his style of leadership, mounted blockades and was instrumental in landing an $80-million compensation package, one the largest settlements in the province's history, for land swindled out of his home First Nation a century ago.

Nelson defeated a slate of four other candidates, including Rolling River band councillor Brent Wilson, political adviser Garry McLean and Jerry Daniels, a promising political newcomer who's a leader in Manitoba's Idle No More movement and the son of Long Plain Chief Dennis Meeches.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 10, 2014 A6

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