Phil Fontaine and conversation

Are we ready to face difficult questions?

On January 22, Phil Fontaine, former Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was scheduled to speak at the University of Winnipeg on “First Nations issues in the past, present, and future”. He was not able to get out more than a few introductory words before being interrupted and drowned out by the singing and drumming of a group of protesters.

The protesters were angry about Fontaine’s association with TransCanada, a Calgary-based energy company that is attempting to win First Nations support for its Energy East pipeline.The ensuing clash was emotionally charged and, in the words of University of Winnipeg representatives, “not very respectful”.

During the hour in which Fontaine’s presentation was scheduled to take place, University of Winnipeg president Lloyd Axworthy insisted repeatedly that the protesters leave or quiet down so that the planned conversation could take place. That word was thrown around a lot: “conversation”.

The University’s response to the protesters was anything but conversational.

How ironic that at a “conversation” ostensibly on the topic of past, present, and future First Nations issues, this group of people was told “we didn’t come to hear you speak”. The protesters effectively silenced Fontaine, and it’s unfortunate the people who came to hear him speak were not able to; it is even more unfortunate that since the entire interaction did not fit into a convenient hour or have a tidy wrap-up, it was not seen as a conversation at all.

In Axworthy’s statement about yesterday’s events, he says: “Within the Indigenous traditions, all members of the community have a voice.” Shouldn’t the University have been quicker to attempt to engage with the protesters? It was undoubtedly disrespectful of the protesters to interrupt someone who was already speaking, but what do you do in a conversation when you feel your voice is not being heard? People speak over each other in conversations. Is what Fontaine has to say on the topic of First Nations issues more important and than what this group was there to say? The response of the University certainly indicated that it is.

The protesters were told “you’ve made your point and we have heard it”. They were asked, “Are you ready to listen?” I think the question, though, should be directed at us. Are we ready to listen?

January 22 was not a day for “conversation” as Axworthy and the University envisioned it. It was a more real conversation, one in which a group of people expressed their anger and distress at what they perceive to be a selling-out of their people, a destruction of the environment. Where should they have done it if not here? Where would they have been heard if not at that presentation?

The University is working on rescheduling Phil Fontaine’s talk. This is not a conversation that will neatly fit into free period – it is ongoing and angry, and it is everyone’s responsibility to hear it when it happens, even when it’s messy.

Regardless of who was respected or disrespected, people are talking and thinking about the issues that were on the agenda, more than they would have been had the presentation gone smoothly. That is a success for awareness.

Rebecca Froese is a fourth year student at the University of Winnipeg.

Published in Volume 68, Number 18 of The Uniter (January 29, 2014)

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