So the next section ends with a call being made from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to the office of Alan Onanole[1], the Grand Chief of the First Nations’ Federation (Bland’s stand-in for the real life Assembly of First Nations). It’s not especially significant in terms of plot or character, but it’s revealing nonetheless:

“Could Chief Onanole,” purred the ever-so-courteous PMO staffer, “stop by to meet with Prime Minister Hemp in the Langevin offices this evening at seven o’clock?”

“Yes, certainly,” came the reassuring reply.  “And the topic?”

Courtesy hesitated slightly to avoid any hint of a demand rather than a request.  “The prime minister’s office suggests that Chief Onanole might like to discuss the current, ah, situation in northern Quebec.”

“Yes,” said reassurance.  “I believe Chief Onanole would be pleased to do that.  

Courtesy and reassurance don’t actually get names here.  In the case of the PMO’s staffer, that’s makes a certain amount of sense.  Generic phone traffic usually gets handled by low ranking types specifically because the more senior leadership has other things to do than wait around the phone.  The thing that’s weird is that there’s no mention of who’s answering the phone at the Grand Chief’s office.  We will learn that he has at least one assistant (an attractive young woman, natch) but the text leading up to this exchange suggests that Al Onanole has been sitting alone in his office, taking advantage of a moment of solitude to contemplate his life.

I’m starting off with the ending here because it illustrates what’s wrong with this entire section.  There’s shapes and movement here.  Figures that look like human beings.  But there’s no depth, and that’s deeply unsettling.

In real life, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) is essentially a nation-wide representative body for the six hundred and fifty or so separate band, nation, and tribal councils which stretch out across the country.  It’s more a kind of unified voice than a governing body, although it does possess a lot of informal power in its ability to set agendas and control the media message.

The AFN has gone through a number of evolutions which continue to this day.[2]  One could reasonably speculate as to what form the future AFN might take, but that’s not what’s happening here.  As we will quickly see, the AFN (or FNF as Bland calls it) is not only very different from the organization we know today, but has been this way for years if not decades:

Chief Al Onanole, Grand Chief of the First Nations Federation, had played native politics in Ottawa his whole working life.  For the most part, he was successful at the game, at least as these things are normally reckoned, which accounted for his recent election to a third term.  He kept the money flowing, kept native concerns on the public agenda, and kept the status of his organization intact – meaning that in the minds of the non-native public the FNF was the legitimate and sole arbiter between the native community and the federal government.  Politicians listened when he demanded “a place at the table” beside the prime minister.  In return, Onanole acted as the helpful fixer, making sure native issues never became a significant political embarrassment for the major politicians and their interests.

Sigh…and we’re off!

So, a bit of history:  On the night of 6 Sept, 1995 a little-known protest at Ipperwash Provincial Park exploded into a nightmare when the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) riot squad stormed the park under cover of darkness.

Although the protest had largely been non-violent, the OPP was working with an incomplete intelligence picture.  This, coupled with pressure from the Provincial government and a failure to properly open up negotiations with any of the protestors led to the police opting for the idea of simply ‘getting the Indians out of the Park.’[3]  Much like the SQ’s raid on the Pines, just going in to kick some ass without having a coherent plan proved to be disastrous, only in this case when the shooting died down, it was a protestor – Anthony “Dudley” George – who was dead and two others badly wounded.

The first report of the shooting reached the OPP command centre around a quarter after eleven. OPP Staff Sgt Mark Wright was the ranking officer at the time, and even as he was trying to get a complete picture (and even as Dudley George’s friends raced him to the hospital in a vain effort to save his life) the phone rang in the command centre, displaying an Ottawa area code.

Dudley George & Ovide Mercredi
Dudley George (left) and Ovide Mercredi (right).

The voice on the other end of the line was that of Ovide Mercredi, the Grand Chief of the AFN.  He’d been hearing rumours about an increasing OPP presence around Ipperwash, and over the course of the day had been pulling every string he could find in order to reach somebody in charge who was actually on the scene.  Barely fifteen minutes after news of the shooting reached the command centre, Mercredi finally got through to SSgt Wright who deliberately concealed the fact that there had been shots fired in the park:

Mercredi: Maybe I should wait for [the commander] to talk to him then, because I want to know because I’m very concerned with what you’re doing.  I’m concerned about people’s lives.

Wright: And so are we…

Mercredi: We have a common goal.

Wright: We certainly do.  Okay, I’ll tell you what, sir, if you can briefly tell me what you want and then I’ll grab him and then, and then…

Mercredi: I want to know if it is your intention to move in [on] those people tonight?

Wright: To move into [sic] those people tonight.  Okay, I’ll pass that on to my commander.[4]

The conversation continued for several minutes, before Chief Mercredi finally hung up.  Worried that a confrontation could happen at any time (and unaware that the worst had already come to pass), he would make several more calls to alert members of the media (including the Ottawa Citizen reporters who would first break the story) before getting into a car and driving through the night to be at the scene the next morning.

This is a real-life Grand Chief in action.

For the record, there will be no mention in Uprising of what, if anything, Al Onanole was doing during the Railway Massacre.

The thing that really puts me around the bend with Onanole is that – I think – I can see the sort of character that Bland was going for.  There’s potential for a real person here, and one that could make for a legitimately tragic figure.  Except that Bland craters on the execution:

Alan Onanole was born in 1950 on the Sweetgrass First Nation reserve in Saskatchewan, the middle child in a family of two brothers and six sisters.  Along with his brothers and sisters, he had been raised by their maternal grandmother, who had taken over the job because his mother and father had both been “incapacitated most of their lives,” as Alan later remarked, by “serving hard times in residential schools.”  Thanks to his grandmother’s steady hand and his own unyielding determination, Alan managed to graduate from high school, the only one in his family who did so.  He went on to study law at McGill and Native Studies at Trent, but his fast-growing involvement in aboriginal politics prevented his graduation in either program.  

…and that’s a face plant right out of the gate folks!

I’ll be talking more about the residential school system shortly, so I’ll be brief here.  The Canadian residential schools were basically a system by which the government sought to assimilate the First Nations through their children: By forcing the children (usually ages 5-16) to attend schools far away from home where they would be punished for speaking their own languages or practicing their culture.  The idea was literally “to kill the Indian in the child.”

And there was a lot of killing.  Conservative estimates are that over 6,000 deaths are directly attributable to abuse or neglect over the century and a half that the schools were in operation.

This does not account for deaths that came in a delayed form through suicide or addiction later in life.

It doesn’t account for the abuse and trauma that residential school survivors might visit upon their own children years later.

It doesn’t account for the trauma suffered by parents who had their children taken away, only to have them come back with injuries they couldn’t even articulate.

So you see the problem here?  What does Bland mean by ‘incapacitated’ by residential school?  Were they traumatized?  Did they fall into drugs or alcohol?  Were they abusive?  Did Al Onanole have to be raised by his maternal grandmother because he feared his own mother and father?

I’m asking these questions because it should be something that would go directly into the makeup of Al Onanole’s character, and by extension, how he’ll respond to the Uprising. In the case of Ovide Mercredi, one of his defining childhood facts was that he grew up outside his family’s reserve, since his mother had lost her ‘Indian Status’ when she married a Métis man.  Mercredi’s successor, Phil Fontaine, was himself a residential school survivor who spoke openly of his own experiences as a way of pushing the call for justice forward.  What kind of childhood did Onanole have and how did this influence the man he later became?  Bland says that he was the only one of six children to graduate high school.  Was this because education was hard to come by or because his siblings were unable to overcome their own host of problems?[5]

Did Al Onanole go to residential school himself?[6]

As the OPP descended upon Ipperwash Provincial Park, Ovide Mercredi spent days trying to get a hold of someone on the ground who could tell him what was happening. When he didn’t like the answers he got, he alerted the media and raced to the scene.  And this was while a similar standoff was going down at Gustafsen Lake in British Columbia.[7]

What was Al Onanole doing during and after the Railway Massacre?

Going off the earlier paragraph, it sounds like Al is supposed to be a cynical hustler, able to keep ‘those quarrelsome natives’ in line…for a price.  It’s a pretty ugly portrait we’re seeing, but true to form Bland will undercut it in the very next paragraph:

During a rate visit home one summer, the band elders came calling.  They needed someone to manage the band’s land claims, and as a bright young, educated person, he had been deemed the perfect person to deal with the white government and its confusing rules.  Alan was only twenty four years old and had had no thought at the time of winning such a post, but he attended the band’s meeting in the reserve’s community hall that evening.  As he often later liked to recall, it was there that he gave his first political speech.  He told a story of a far-off day when the band and all native people would be free and prosperous, when the white man would apologize for the evils they had poured on the people, and how he would try to lead the people to that day.  

Al Onanole won that election and many others over the years.  He was now an unassailable Grand Chief.  But Alan was tired.  Too many fights, too many challenges from young native radicals, too many new problems – drugs and gangs and so on – that sapped his energy and resolve.  The comfortable life in Ottawa had its costs and distractions as well.  


Al Onanole is starting to sound like George Bailey in a darker version of It’s a Wonderful Life.‘  In the movie, George Bailey’s dreams of travel and adventure are continually undercut by the irresistible pull of obligation to his home town and the family business.  Here, Onanole’s dreams of higher education end up taking a back seat to his Band’s need…for an educated leader?…[8]

In the film, George Bailey finds salvation in the realization that this supposedly limited world in Bedford Falls is as rich as any adventure he could have imagined.  Meanwhile in Uprising Al Onanole…uh…won election to his Band’s council…um…then won many other elections…and is now a beaten man?…

…because he’s become to comfortable in his Ottawa office to deal with the challenges of modern Indigenous life?

Here’s a thing that Bland should have included as part of a late edit for the novel.  In 2008, PM Stephen Harper did officially apologize for the residential schools.[9]  How does Al feel about having that far-off day coming to pass within his life time?  Did it give him any renewed sense of purpose?  A fresh well of strength to draw upon even as life had seemed so futile?

Also, I would think a First Nations leader from Saskatchewan might think twice about imagining himself unassailable after David Ahenakew.

He watched with growing dread the storm he could see gathering over the people.  It was a great danger, if it were allowed to grow, that might bring the whole weight of an angry, vengeful country down on the careful consensus of moderation he had constructed with Canadian politicians.  He knew that they would turn to him eventually to solve “the Molly Grace problem,” even though Alan wasn’t sure he could placate native demands this time.  Nevertheless, in the circumstances, the call from Jack Hemp’s office wasn’t unexpected. 

And there goes the rest of it…

Okay I’m going to briefly note that this is yet another place in the novel where Bland can’t seem to decide whether Molly Grace is well known or unknown.  In this section, it seems that she’s well-known within the circles of the old guard of First Nations government, but a mystery to the ‘white’ world.

Setting all that aside, this one short scene makes me want to pull my hair out with frustration.  Because I feel like I see who this character is supposed to be.  Or maybe, from my perspective, who he should be.

Set aside the ugly ‘race hustler’ implications of Al’s story for a moment.  The idea here is that Al Onanole is supposed to represent the old guard.  He’s supposed to be that generation that struggled, that compromised, that found solutions to slowly crank the ratchet over, one click at a time.  He’s had his successes, but a lot of them are behind-the-scene successes, the quiet legislative victories and dogged negotiations that are setting the conditions for more in the future.

But now it’s too late.  The Movement has sprung up, with young leaders demanding results now and dismissing the decades of leg work by earlier generations. The young are always impatient and eager – that’s why so many social movements are driven by youth – but there’s danger when energy and drive are combined with a lack of history.

A struggle that may have shown steady progress over generations might as well not exist in the young rebel, facing injustice today, whose memory only goes a few years.

What Al Onanole could have been, is a representation of such a catastrophic dynamic.  Of the challenge that comes with passing the torch on to the next generation, of making sure the young people understand the struggle and can learn from your mistakes.  Al wouldn’t have to be a positive character, necessarily.  He could serve as a warning of what could happen when the older generation holds on for too long.  When they see younger leaders as challengers to defeat instead of successors to cultivate.   Onanole could be a tragic figure, realizing too late that he has lost touch with young people just as they get hijacked by unscrupulous demagogues.

This is what he could have been.  I can’t help but feel a bit sad about that.


[1] Al Onanole joins Bill Whitefish in being named after a Reserve in Manitoba.  Onanole is a predominantly Sioux community along the Saskatchewan border, while Whitefish can be found in the northern reaches of the Province.

[2] One of the more interesting proposals I’ve seen in the news recently was that the First Nations should organize themselves along Treaty and Nation lines, rather than off the settler-colonial Provinces and Territories.

[3] This quote is alleged to have been spoken by the recently elected Provincial Premiere Mike Harris in response to the court challenges being mounted by the Protestors.  A detailed history of the crisis and its aftermath can be found in: “One Dead Indian: The Premier, the Police, and the Ipperwash Crisis” by Peter Edwards.  2003 McClellan & Stuart.

[4] The call was recorded by the OPP command centre staff.  Transcript quoted from Edwards’ book (above).

[5] There’s a hint of a really ugly subtext here, where Bland emphasizes Al’s grandmother having a ‘steady hand,’ similar to Bill Whitefish’s mother being described as ‘strict’.  The implication seems to be that, without harsh, overbearing parents, native children won’t amount to much.

[6] Although they had existed long before Canada was even a nation, the residential schools went into overdrive after 1920 (when they became mandatory)  and with the revision of the Indian Act in 1951.  This would have put Al Onanole at potentially the worst possible age.

[7] Ovide Mercredi had been part of the negotiating team opposing the Meech Lake Accord, as well as one of the negotiators at Oka.  His experience with both political and violent confrontation likely informed his response to Ipperwash (seek out the front line leadership, then get on the ground to help out in person).

[8] Okay, so how exactly was it a good idea to enlist a high school graduate to lead his band council instead of waiting a couple of years for him to go to law school first?

[9] Harper even quoted the infamous line “kill the Indian in the child” explicitly as a motivation behind the residential school system.  It’s worth mentioning (again) that Grand Chief Phil Fontaine (Ovide Mercredi’s successor) was instrumental in bringing this moment about.

2 thoughts on “46-The Grand Chief …

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