By BERNIE BELLAN Sparks flew at the Gwen Secter Centre on Thursday, August 18, when I attempted to ask questions of the newly elected Member of the Legislature for St. Johns, Nahanni Fontaine.
The occasion was what was billed as “coffee and conversation” with Fontaine. Presumably, Marilyn Regiec, executive director of Gwen Secter Centre, did not anticipate anything more than a sedate gathering of seniors. Then again, Marilyn should have known that when she was also issuing the invitation to the likes of me that there might be something more than a quiet afternoon in store.
You see, I had already met Ms. Fontaine once previously, when I had moderated a panel of candidates in St. Johns constituency on March 31, prior to the recent provincial election. Fontaine didn’t take kindly to me at that event either. Here is how Marty Boroditsky, a.k.a. Marty Gold, described what happened when I posed the first question of the evening back in March to Ms. Fontaine:
“The gamble by NDP hopeful Nahanni Fontaine to impress a crowd made up mostly of Jewish Baba’s and Zaida’s at a St. Johns riding town hall on March 31st, collapsed almost immediately when she begged off answering the first basic election question.
“ ‘I understand very little about debts and deficits’ she told moderator Bernie Bellan in explaining she was not willing to answer a question about the NDP budget plan to the gathering at the Gwen Sector Centre.
“ ‘I know the NDP has a plan to bring more jobs to the economy – my priorities are the marginalized of the marginalized.’ ”
In his reporting on the evening, Boroditsky described Fontaine’s defensiveness throughout the entire evening, as she was asked questions from the audience about various topics, including: her role in having Osborne House (a shelter for abused women) defunded by the NDP government; why, in her capacity as the special advisor to the Cabinet on aboriginal women’s issues she had done nothing to help the staff of the Native Women’s Transition Centre when the staff had asked her for help in dealing with a toxic workplace; and whether Manitoba Hydro’s board of directors was politically biased. (In answer to that question, she said that the “premise” of the question was “unfair”. As you’ll see if you read on, “unfair” is a term Fontaine likes to use when she doesn’t like a particular question.)
Since her election to the legislature, Fontaine has been in the news quite a bit. A search of the Winnipeg Free Press’s website shows that the vast majority of stories that have reported on her have focused on her concerns about aboriginal women.
As Fontaine stood up to speak at Gwen Secter Centre, she spent approximately one hour telling her life story to the some 20 individuals who were gathered there. Her story is a compelling one: Born to a woman who had been forced into prostitution and who was a drug addict, Fontaine’s father was a Métis from Quebec who was a drug dealer.
Despite her harrowing childhood, during which she suffered sexual abuse herself, Fontaine managed to complete a masters degree in Native Studies, Women’s Studies and Critical Theory at the University of Manitoba.
According to an NDP website, “Before entering politics, Nahanni worked as Special Advisor on Aboriginal Women’s Issues for the Indigenous Issues Committee of Cabinet of Manitoba, with a special focus on Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).
“She also worked as an Environmental Researcher for Sagkeeng First Nation and taught in the Native Studies department at the University of Manitoba.”
Given her background and the predominant association that she herself has encouraged as being a spokesperson for native women, I thought it fair to ask Fontaine whether she is only concerned with issues relating to native women. In prefacing my question, I referred to the long tradition of St. Johns having produced some very well-known Members of the Legislature, such as Gord Mackintosh and Saul Cherniack. (Later someone pointed out that I should have included Judy Waslycia-Leis in that list.) I said to her that I never knew anything about Gord Mackintosh’s ethnic background and that even though Saul Cherniack was Jewish, I said that “I didn’t think he would have been identified as representing the Jewish community more than any other community.”
I compared her stance to that of Kevin Chief who, although also native, “reflects a wider diversity of population than natives alone”. I asked her, therefore, whether “she considered it her mandate to represent only native women?”
As was the case during the pre-election forum on March 31, when Fontaine described the question about the bias of Hydro’s board as “unfair”, she answered me saying, “So, quite honestly, and I mean this respectfully and honestly, I think that’s an unfair question.”
Subsequently, Fontaine said to me: “I’m not sure why you’re getting so defensive with me.” (Defensive? I think the word she was looking for was “offensive”.) “I’m not sure why every time I meet you…”
I interrupted, saying, “This is (only) the second time.”
Fontaine continued: “I’m not sure why you’re having such animosity toward me.”
“Animosity?” I said. “I’m asking a question.”
“Before you attempt to ask me an erroneous question,” Fontaine continued, “maybe you should watch a bit of Question Period.”
And with that, even though I had wanted to ask another question, I was cut off.
So - why write about this, you may be wondering? I actually rather like Nahanni Fontaine. She’s articulate, has a compelling back story, and is capable of achieving much in the political sphere. But - she has an incredibly thin skin and is all too quick to play the race card.
I had been quite aware of Fontaine’s predilection for blaming “whites” for the problems afflicting natives. Nowadays it’s not all that difficult to find something that someone may have said or written in the past that reveals that person’s true thinking.
Here is something that reveals much about her true attitude and that was written about Fontaine in a 2006 article in The Manitoban (the University of Manitoba student newspaper) at a time when she was working on a PhD in native studies (but which she didn’t complete):
“Unfortunately as a result of the introduction of Christianity and forced Christian marriages, the incorporation into a wage-economy, residential schools, and the introduction of alcohol, Aboriginal men’s and women’s roles have significantly changed,” said Fontaine.
Later, in that same article:
“Aboriginal gangs are the product of our colonized and oppressed space within Canada” said Fontaine, “a space [that] brought with it inequity, racism, dislocation, marginalization, and cultural and spiritual alienation.”
“It is a space of physical and cultural genocide that continues to exist in and at this very moment,” added Fontaine.
In 2010, Fontaine attacked the idea of giving public money to a Youth for Christ funded youth centre at Main and Higgins. Here is what a CBC report at the time had to say, in describing her opposition to the project:
“Nahanni Fontaine, director of justice for the Southern Chiefs Organization, an advocacy group for First Nations people in southern Manitoba, said giving public money to the project would be like contributing to the contemporary version of residential schools under the guise of helping youth.
“ ‘[We] saw religion used as an abusive and violating mechanism in which to assimilate aboriginal children into Euro-Canadian mainstream,’ she said.”
At one time St. Johns constituency had the most number of Jews of any provincial constituency. Those days are long past, although there is still a significant number of Jews who reside in St. Johns. Is it fair to ask whether Nahanni Fontaine is interested in representing the interests of everyone who lives in St. Johns? Fontaine says that asking the question itself is unfair.