KICKSTART PROFILE How native leader Matthew Coon Come got started

EXCERPT "Kickstart: How Successful Canadians Got Started"

When he was six, Matthew Coon Come was taken
away from his family in Northern Quebec and sent to
a residential school run by the Anglican Church. As a
young adult, he became chief of his band, challenging
many development projects, both by Hydro-Québec and
private business, that threatened to tread on Cree land.
In 2000, he became national chief of the Assembly of
First Nations, a position he held until 2003.

The Call of Community

While at McGill law school, I was continually intrigued and challenged. It had to do with my willingness to be coached, to be taught, to sit at somebody’s feet who was smarter than I was. I didn’t believe in hanging out with people who were my age: I would learn nothing. If I was with people who knew more, then it rubbed off on me. Sitting in lectures and listening to professors fit well with my personality.

I also became increasingly concerned about the issues affecting Native people across the country. I learned about treaty relationships, the recent court cases in our favour, and the agreements between the Crown and aboriginal peoples, which were known as land claims. I never understood the term “land claim”: we had been living on the land for hundreds of years; who exactly were we claiming it from?

During my second year, an election was called back in my community. I was in the middle of writing exams when some of the elders of my band asked me if I wanted to run. There were eighteen other people nominated; I didn’t think my chances were that strong. It was a difficult decision: as band chief, there was no salary, only an honorarium of $200 a month; if I finished law school and became a lawyer, I would make a lot of money, which I could send back to the community. The pull was strong. I consulted my father and other trustworthy people. In the end, the incumbent chief claimed he was stepping down in order to allow young people into leadership positions. It was an important declaration. The elders were now letting their children, the ones who had gone to school, take over. The shift in the direction of the community was enough to convince me that I needed to play a part.

In the end, I only had to run against one other person. I dropped right out of law school (never to return) and went up north to give my first speech. The community hall was packed. I arrived late, after my opponent had already spoken, and saw the faces of everyone in the community — my grandfather, my father, my uncle — everyone who I respected in this world. I was just a kid of twenty-four and here I was presenting my ideas to them.

I began by talking about the stories my grandfather used to tell me, as I sat with him by the riverbank, and the important role he played as a hunter. Then I spoke about the proposed activity in forestry and mining in our area, that our lakes would be used for reservoirs. And I proposed a plan. We could work on having our own structures, our own entities, and we could govern ourselves and manage our own businesses. We could re-examine our financial arrangements and bring capital into our community. We could control our land and resources and improve our standard of living to ensure long-term prosperity. I talked about possibility, co-operation, and commitment — and the crowd loved it.

“Kickstart: How Successful Canadians Got Started”, © 2008 by Alexander Herman, Paul Matthews and Andrew Feindel. Published by Dundurn Press,