Matthew Coon Come is the elected National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Canada. He was born in a seasonal encampment near James Bay, into the Mistissini Cree Nation of Northern Quebec. The first white man he ever saw was the Indian Agent, come in a float pane to take him and other children to residential school. He attended school in Moose Factory, La Tuque and Hull. He entered Trent University to study political science. When he was 21 and at McGill studying Law, a group of elders from his band asked him to run for deputy chief. He won the election, and moved up the ranks to eventually become the Grand Chief of 12,000 Crees in Northern Quebec.
Opposition to the James Bay Hydroelectic project brought him to national attention. In an effort to get the Quebec government to discuss the project with the Cree (previous to this, the Quebec government had not listened to protest from the Cree), Coon Come organized a group of elders to canoe down from James Bay, through Lake Erie, down the Hudson River and right to New York City, the projected main user of the energy the James Bay Project. The tactic was effective; the Quebec government, always hypersensitive over the opinions of others, especially the Americans, began talks with the James Bay Cree over the use of "traditional Cree lands" at James Bay that would have been flooded for the project. (the results of the whole thing is excellently discussed in Genocide of the James Bay Cree)
One of the most prominent speeches Coon Come has given was at Harvard in 1996. In it, he pointed out how the Cree of Northern Quebec had boycotted the 1995 Quebec referendum for their own, at which 96% of voters declared that if Quebec decided to leave Canada, they (and their traditional lands which comprise the northern 2/3 of Quebec) would stay in Canada. The referendum was a powerful message. If one goes beyond the Cree lands to include the Innuit, Nakapi and Innu, the area of First Nations traditional lands is larger than Britain or Italy, 400,000 square kilometres (150,000 square miles). In the speech, Coon Come basically called separatist leaders ethnic racists.
"We respect these Quebecois and wish to work with them," Coon Come said. "Unfortunately, however, the government of Quebec has not met this basic standard of equity and respect for fundamental rights. The present government of the Canadian province of Quebec is seeking, on grounds of French ethnic nationalism, to secede from Canada. And this secessionist government of Quebec states that when it secedes, it can forcibly include my people and our traditional lands, in a sovereign Quebec."
cbc.ca indepth backgrounder on Mathew Coon Come
Matthew Coon Come is now the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, an assemblage of the 633 First Nations in Canada. He won the election (voted in by the Chiefs) narrowly over Phil Fontaine in 2000 by attacking Fontaine's cozy relationship with the federal government. He promised a return to a more confrontational relationship with the federal government. In fact, some call Coon Come's election a return to the style of leadership by Ovide Mercredi, who gave Coon Come a rousing recommendation at the election.
In the year or so since Coon Come's election, he has been prominently featured in the Canadian media. At a recent gathering of chiefs in Atlantic Canada, he criticized those Chiefs who took advantage of the open bar, saying they are setting a bad example by drinking and smoking too much. He has stated that discussion on land and resources, as well as treaties, will be his priorities during his term, but more recently he has taken the federal government to task over the proposed changes to the Indian Act, refusing to even talk with the Minister for Indian Affairs.
Unlike most aboriginal leaders in Canada, he is openly Christian (he converted in the 1970's). He has been married for 24 years and has five children.