Ovide Mercredi is the University of Manitoba’s Distinguished Alumni for 2013 and was honoured at the University’s Homecoming Dinner this fall. Mercredi is recognized both in Canada and internationally as a leading advocate for Indigenous rights.
Mercredi graduated from the U of M with a law degree in 1977 and practiced law until 1983. In 1989, he was elected Regional Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Manitoba. Mercredi also served as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations from 1991-1999. He was Chief of his home community of Misipawistik Cree Nation from 2005 to 2011.
As a specialist in constitutional law, Mercredi played a key role along with Manitoba MLA Elijah Harper in defeating the Meech Lake Accord constitutional amendments. He also had a major role in the Charlottetown Accord discussions and has addressed the United Nations in both Geneva and New York.
He was born in 1946 and raised in a traditional lifestyle in Misipawistik Cree Nation (Grand Rapids), Manitoba. Soon after graduating high school, Mercredi came to Winnipeg and became involved at the Friendship Centre. Here he found political mentorship from the experienced advocates working at the Centre.
“These were the ones who were our role models, the ones who had faced the devil—meaning racism—before and reached a point in their lives where they became champions in improving the lot of our people.”
His work as a student political activist began while registering for courses at the University of Manitoba. While standing in the long lineup, Mercredi noticed a few other Indigenous students and quickly began organizing a student group. This group (the Indian Metis Eskimo Students’ Association, or IMESA) became one of the first Indigenous student organizations in North America and was instrumental in the creation of the native studies department at the university in 1974.
IMESA’s first major challenge came in 1971 when a racist and defamatory article about Winnipeg’s Indigenous people was published in a student newspaper. Mercredi, in his speech at the Celebrating Indigenous Trailblazers event in September, called this article “a gift from God.” He further explained to the Gradzette, “I called it a ‘gift from God’ because that implies that it is a good thing. I mean God doesn’t give you negative gifts. So we would make that negative thing into a positive development.”
The Indigenous student group, when faced with the option of having the students who wrote the article expelled from the university, chose to educate the students instead. This event is an early example of Mercredi’s commitment to peaceful co-existence.
“Part of it has to do with how you are raised by your own family. The Cree or Ojibwe family survives because of harmony; harmonious relationships are important to the survival of the family. And our family is not just the nuclear family but the extended family, and then the community is part of our family. So you cannot have divisions within a family that size. You have to learn to get along. This is all part of our upbringing.”
Mercredi’s notions of peacemaking have also been influenced by Mahatma Gandhi.
“One of Gandhi’s beliefs was that if you want to reform, if you want to seek change, then you have to make friends with the oppressor. And then you have to find champions from amongst the oppressor to promote your cause. And you can’t do that through measures that make things worse, through ‘us and them,’ the great divide.”
This lifelong advocacy of non-violent methods of change resulted in Mercredi’s nomination by the Government of India for the Gandhi Peace Prize. In 2010, he was also awarded the Social Courage Award by the Peace and Justice Studies Association.
Reflecting on the accomplishments he achieved with the other members of IMESA, Mercredi is proud of what they did as students. He hopes that as the U of M expands it will be a place where an Indigenous person can show up and see their personality reflected there as well.
“This idea of ‘Indigenizing’ the university is about bringing Indigenous knowledge into the university in all areas – architecture, law, history, political studies, education. And not as a program of studies only but one of those things that drives the whole university in its conversations.”
When the IMESA students began advocating for a department of native studies, says Mercredi, the intention was never for it to become segregated from the program of studies.
“It was a measure that we took to fill the vacuum that was there but the only way we can really fill the vacuum is to Indigenize the institution itself.”
Mercredi believes the native studies department is still necessary although he says the time has come to change the name to Indigenous Studies. But he says the current students “should be the ones who initiate that change. Let that be their legacy.”