He's famous, bold, bewitching - and he knows it. As he swaggers into battle with a twinkle in his eye, how can you not follow? By Katherine Laidlaw.
"Francois Paulette." The glossy black type on the card in my hand spells a name I recall hazily from Northern history. "It doesn't say what you do," I say, surprised.
The crow's feet at his eyes deepen and in a gravelly voice he replies, "It doesn't have to."
When I set out to profile the North's most beguiling elder, I thought it would be a simple tale of an environmental activist on a quest. I didn't expect an unlikely companionship to unfold - one where I'd pick him up from the Yellowknife airport each time he flew into town, or meet him for dinner. "You look beautiful today!" he'd exclaim with a smile, before making a sly joke about how braiding a Chipewyan man's hair is an erotic activity.
What I did know, immediately upon meeting him, is that there's a mysterious magnetism to Francois Paulette. It's a charisma that allows him to trade on his persona - his meal ticket, his bankable asset. Throughout the world, he walks into rooms and fills them: Oh my god, there's that Indian chief, all 6-foot-2 of him, a long braid trailing down his back. He quit a heady, chaotic life in politics to become the North's most charming spiritual and environmental guru. When the North needs someone to paddle Prince William and Kate to a private island, he's the man. When the King of Norway comes calling, he appears, dressed in regalia. When he talks, everyone listens. And everyone, no matter how much they try to resist - and I did try - seems to love him.
"I want a moratorium on all development until those bastards get a plan," he says in a calm cadence at odds with his fiery statement. He's on a sort of mellow rampage - the rampage of a 63-year-old elder who now makes a living being a blissed-out version of his once-explosive self. He's talking about shutting down Alberta's tar sands, the biggest construction project on the planet, with a GDP of $1.7-trillion and effluent that's pouring downstream into his homeland. The "bastards" are Stephen Harper's government. Paulette's war against Big Oil would seem unwinnable until you hear his backstory: He's pals with Titanic director James Cameron and environmental legend David Suzuki. He once had a fight with KISS frontman Gene Simmons. He travels to see his favourite operas. He's the most famous Dene man in the world.
I sit across from him at breakfast at Yellowknife's Explorer Hotel, where he stays when he's in town because the beds are comfortable. Between answering my questions and saying hello to the many diners who come by our table, he eats his toast and fruit. His cellphone rings, and he answers it in his gritty baritone. The man on the other end responds incoherently. Paulette laughs. "Who is this? Who do you want to speak to? You can talk to me if you want." And he means it. He will talk to anyone.
When Paulette was 21, someone brought him a fax that would set him on his life's path. On an assignment as an architectural draftsman in Lutselk'e, NWT, he was in a meeting when a man walked in carrying a piece of paper. "Francois," it read, "you are now the chief of the Fort Smith Indian Band. Come home."
That's what he did. Before he'd been placed in residential school for nine years, he'd grown up attending chief's meetings with his father, so leadership was in his blood. And now, his people needed him. It was the early 1970s and a revolution was taking place in native America. In the U.S., the American Indian Movement was taking up guns, and in Canada, too, tensions were building. After hundreds of years of being pushed around, First Nations people were pushing back.
Paulette saw an opportunity - he wanted his land, and he wanted to fight. Along with three lawyers and some leaders in the Indian Brotherhood - an influential group of NWT chiefs who'd banded together to stand up to the federal government - Paulette drafted a legal document asserting that First Nations never relinquished their lands to European settlers. The document, now known as the Paulette Caveat, was referred to the NWT Supreme Court and then the Supreme Court of Canada, where its assertions were tacitly accepted. It signalled the beginning of the modern land-claims movement still going on today, and turned Paulette into a hero.
So, just two-and-a-half years after becoming chief, Paulette was suddenly influential and famous. And his position had other perks, like a posh apartment in Yellowknife. But it also meant sacrifice. He tried attending university in Lethbridge for a term, studying political science, but quit halfway through. He drank. He assaulted a police officer, got thrown in jail, was labelled a dangerous offender and placed under surveillance. He drank more.
His silver-rimmed reading glasses sit at the edge of his nose. He pulls off his camo hat and smooths down the strands escaping from his grey braid. "Of course I'm worried, because we don't know where the source of it is, where any of it's coming from," Paulette tells the camera in Tipping Point, a documentary that aired last year on David Suzuki's The Nature of Things. The documentary is about Paulette's quest to get foreign governments to pull investments from the tar sands, which he condemned for leaching toxins into the watershed just a few hundred kilometres upstream from Fort Smith. The doc was lauded by the ideological left but scorned by the right. Writer Peter Foster, in an op-ed in the National Post, basically called Paulette a stooge of the Greens. "For Big Money environmentalists," he wrote, "the natives are mere tools in the bigger war against the oil sands."
But Paulette doesn't see himself as a tool, and he passionately refutes the suggestion that, because he travels the world speaking at influential conferences, he's sold out. No, he says, this is what the past 40 years have led him to - a man on a spiritual path, seeking the life he was born into, or perhaps seeking redemption for sins of the past. His aura in the documentary bears little resemblance to the raucous leader who jumped an armed cop in the '70s. He has the same prominent cheekbones, but now they're pocked with age, and his eyes have softened, become more distant. Now, he says, he seeks to educate.
After getting sober and retiring as chief, he worked as an addictions counsellor and cross-cultural consultant. He became a negotiator, taking courses with lawyers at Harvard University. (He says he won their final negotiation.) He occasionally taught at Aurora College in Fort Smith. Who better to teach native studies than a man who helped spearhead the biggest native movement Canada has ever seen?
After one failed marriage, he met Lesley, his second wife (and "life partner," he says) on the Six Nations Reserve in Brantford, Ontario. "I picked her up and brought her back north, the traditional way." Lesley is highly respected in the NWT for her pioneering work as a midwife. I leave her messages for this story but she doesn't return them. Paulette laughingly recounts the time he'd planned a lavish breakfast in bed for their anniversary, only to be left naked in an apron reading a note from her. There was a baby on the way; she'd had to go.
Sometimes, when Francois Paulette isn't hunting buffalo, he calls and tells me stories - the muskox are on the move, he says. They've been seen as far south as Fort Resolution this year. It's a bad omen if the muskox and buffalo meet. I listen. He says there's no word in his language for "climate change," only a phrase that means "strange things are happening."
Our peculiar friendship becomes an office joke - oh, is your boyfriend coming to town? Paulette shows me photos of the pretty girls he met on a recent trip. He flirts with our waitress, who knows his order by heart. When he calls me late at night, my actual boyfriend gets uncomfortable; he starts a fight after Paulette invites me out for dinner on one of his many trips through Yellowknife. When I tell Paulette about the fight, he says simply, "Relationships are about trust." There are moments I question my actions. I pick him up from the airport in my truck. He asks me to make him chicken, so I interview him over chicken Cordon Bleu at my house. Am I encouraging something untoward? He tells me about a dalliance he had with a CNN reporter in Costa Rica. He knows the drill.
Paulette has known the drill for a long time - he describes his 20s, a time in his life he should be immensely proud of, as the dark ages. "A huge backdrop of chaos," he says, that included being wined and dined across Canada and fending off women like flies. "I'm a recovering alcoholic for 37 years now. I'm trying to quit sex; it's a bad influence," he says, laughing. In one moment, he jokes he makes his money as a Viagra dealer; in the next, he says he's looking for purity. When he comes over to my place for dinner, we drink sparkling peach juice.
Paulette's niece died of cancer. His brother-in-law has cancer. His neighbour and dear friend died of cancer. Cancer pervades his life - and he says it comes from the tar sands. Three years ago, when residents of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, made national news for alleging that the oil patch was poisoning their water, Paulette was at the forefront. He went to Norway to speak to stakeholders of Statoil, that country's national oil company, which has huge investments in Alberta. "What you do with your money is your business, but when you use your money in my area, and destroy my life and my civilization, it becomes my business," he told them. It was to no avail; Statoil decided to hang on to their investments. But this year he's been invited again, and he thinks he'll win. He thinks, with the power of his personality, with his charms and striking appearance and gift of gab, he can talk them into it.
A few days before he's about to leave, I get an email from him. Sorry he hasn't been in touch, he says. He's been sick, knocked on his ass by the flu. He signs off the email saying he looks forward to telling me more stories. "I enjoy making you laugh and think!" he writes. Could it be as simple as that?
Sometimes when we make vague plans to meet for dinner, I don't follow through. I want to write objectively about him, not caring whether or not he wins his battle. He writes me again, with the subject line, "Light that sparkles on the water." I can't help but write back. After all, he's Francois Paulette.