Matthew coon come was the golden boy from James Bay when he was swept into office as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in 2000. Expectations were high that here, finally, was the leader who would spark a native revolution in Canada and find a new way to fight government pigheadedness on native issues like housing and land claims. Some even called him the native Nelson Mandela.
The myth, it seems, has proved bigger than Coon Come himself. As the AFN prepares to elect a new chief at its annual general assmebly in Edmonton beginning next Wednesday (July 16), it's a much-maligned Coon Come who's stumbling in to defend his leadership.
Some well-placed observers are predicting an upset, and a recent poll of 100 chiefs published in the Winnipeg-based aboriginal monthly The First Perspective shows Coon Come at 25 per cent of decided chiefs, 3 percentage points behind main rival Phil Fontaine.
But there's more than just Fontaine, whom Coon Come beat handily last time, to deal with. In the key battlegrounds of BC and Ontario, another rival, Roberta Jamieson, who recently won the key endorsement of the Chiefs of Ontario, and is enjoying growing support.
The former Ontario ombud and Mohawk chief, who also holds five honorary doctorates and the distinction of being Canada's first female native lawyer, has emerged as a wild card.
Says John Lagimodiere, editor of Saskatchewan's Eagle Feather News, "I think Matthew would have walked away with it, because Phil still has the baggage (from his own last term as AFN leader), but when this fantastic woman came forward with this fantas-tic resumé, everything changed."
For Coon Come, it's all a far cry from the day he sailed into office with a promise to achieve the same success at the AFN as he had in northern Quebec, where he led Crees in their campaign against the Great Whale hydroelectric project in the early 1990s.
Coon Come had bold ideas for reforming the AFN and revitalizing native politics, specifically a proposal to introduce a one-native, one-vote system of decision-making at the AFN. He believed the system would give him as chief the moral authority to press issues with the federal government.
Instead, Coon Come found himself bogged down in squabbles with his executive committee of regional vice-chiefs, many of them supporters of Fontaine, and in clashes with Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault, who responded by cutting the AFN's annual budget from $20 million to $6 million.
The move caused major layoffs at the AFN's Ottawa offices, and with them a host of bitter feelings.
Coon Come spent his first term on the defensive while chiefs took pot-shots at his leadership.
As one observer puts it, "When you raise expectations and don't deliver, you fall pretty hard."
Phil Fontaine's camp is the first to suggest Coon Come should have been more conciliatory with the feds.
"If you choose to be confrontational, the outcome is not having a working relationship," says Keith Matthew, communications manager for Fontaine's campaign. "It really doesn't matter who the minister is."
Jamieson, for her part, is close to Coon Come on the issues, but her campaign co-chair, David Nahwegahbow, says she's a better conciliator and communicator.
"He ran on a platform of promoting aboriginal rights," says Nahwegahbow. "He hasn't been able to deliver."
It seems a harsh thing to say of the man who made the plight of the Quebec Cree an international issue, but the reality might just be that, for Coon Come, the hopes were too high. Indeed, running nine Quebec Cree communities is far easier than leading 637 First Nations who speak 50 languages.
In that regard, the script may have been written for Coon Come even before he took the AFN's reins, when several of the key Cree advisers who helped him fight the Great Whale hydro project that catapulted him to prominence refused to make the jump with him to the AFN.
The predictions for this election are all over the map. Len Kruzenga, managing editor of The First Perspective, believes Jamieson will be eliminated on the first ballot and throw her support behind Fontaine, giving him the win. "Matthew is very, very weak right now," he says.
Some think Coon Come will be the first to go - "You can almost hear the sense of desperation in his camp," says one backer - and will throw his support behind Jamieson because of his personal enmity toward Fontaine.
But others believe he's still the one to beat.
Whether or not he'll be able to turn his pull into a last-minute upset, as he did against Fontaine in 2000, remains to be seen. Many chiefs are keeping their choice to themselves or waiting to decide based on the speeches.
For now, Coon Come and his camp are holding their fire. His campaign manager, Anne Wildcat, declined to comment on the record for this story. Coon Come did not return half a dozen calls requesting comment.