Fontaine speaks of ‘poisons’ of racism
Phil Fontaine, the former chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told a Timmins business audience Thursday night that racism is one of the “poisons” that communities like Timmins can do without.
Fontaine, who is widely regarded as the elder statesman of the Canadian Aboriginal community, was the keynote speaker at the annual general meeting of the Timmins Chamber of Commerce.
Fontaine was a three-term national chief for the Assembly of First Nations. He also negotiated the largest legal settlement in Canadian history, $5.6 billion, for what is regarded as the largest human rights violation in Canadian history, the 150-year regime of residential schools.
As he began his talk, Fontaine acknowledged that Timmins falls within, or close to, the traditional lands of 16 First Nations communities. He also expressed his thanks to the Thunder Creek singers and drum group for their opening drum song at the meeting.
As a hockey fan, Fontaine said “coming to Timmins is pretty special”. He said he was aware that some 40 outstanding NHL players began their careers in South Porcupine, Schumacher and Timmins. He spoke briefly of Dean Prentice and Bill Barilko.
At another point in his talk Fontaine recalled the story of the B.C. ferry that ran aground one stormy night after leaving Prince Rupert in 2006. The ship hit an underwater ridge and sank.
Aboriginal residents of nearby Hartley Bay responded to the mayday calls that night, jumping into their small boats to help rescue people in the water. Of the 101 people on the ferry, 99 were rescued.
“Only two people perished that evening,” said Fontaine.
He said people risked their lives to save others.
Fontaine said one woman from the community was interviewed and asked why people would place themselves into danger for others they didn’t know.
“She said because we are of one heart. We’re of one heart — meaning that we are all in this together. There was a commitment, a sharing of humanity that was evident,” he said.
“That speaks to the kind of commitment and will that we need to make a real difference in the lives of all our people.”
He said his time in Timmins that day included a tour of Northern College as well as time spent at the Timmins Native Friendship Centre.
“I like what I’ve heard so far. I like the sense of spirit that seems to prevail in the community,” Fontaine said. “And I am convinced that you are going to bring about some major changes here that will make a difference not just to Timmins, but the Indigenous communities that border your town.”
The subject of racism towards Indigenous individuals in Timmins has been widely discussed since a visit from the Ontario Human Rights Commissioner Renu Mandhane earlier this year. She published a report saying that “racism was pervasive and normalized” for Indigenous people in Timmins.
Fontaine said, “Racism is a disease that poisons people. It’s a poison to communities. And there is really no place for that in our communities. We just have to set it aside.
“And so that is a challenge that the Chamber has before it, the mayor, his worship and his council and the community people that make up this place.
“I’m not suggesting you’re racist by the way,” Fontaine said with a quick smile. “I’m not making that point. It’s just the fact that it exists.”
Fontaine said racism needs to be resolved before it gets worse because Canada is becoming more diverse and world events are bringing more new citizens to this country.
“It becomes ever more evident as more and more people come from other parts of the world come and join with us to make a new and better life for themselves,” said Fontaine
“They’re here to make a difference, but they can only make a difference if you welcome them with open arms and say to yourself , and to your friends and family, those people are here to make a difference for not just themselves, but for all of us. That is something I believe in and I am sure that you do as well.”
Phil Fontaine, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was the keynote speaker at the annual general meeting of the Timmins Chamber of Commerce this week. He spoke briefly on the issue of racism, saying it is a poison for communities and people allow it to carry on. Fontaine challenged the business community and city leaders to take steps to “set it aside”.