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An Exit Interview with Perry Bellegarde, National Chief

The outgoing AFN leader on the ‘sacred work’ facing residential school communities, dismantling the Indian Act, marking progress and more.

Christopher Guly 30 Jun 2021TheTyee.ca

Tyee frequent contributor Christopher Guly is an Ottawa-based journalist and member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery. He served as director of communications for the Winnipeg Council of Treaty and Status Indians from 1984 to 1985.

The recent horrific discoveries of unmarked graves and burial sites at the sites of two former residential schools added a melancholic tone to this June’s marking of National Indigenous History Month, and have prompted some to call for the cancellation of this year’s Canada Day celebrations.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau believes that July 1 “will be a time of reflection” with many Canadians “reflecting on reconciliation, on our relationship with Indigenous peoples and how it has evolved and how it needs to continue to evolve rapidly.”

As he approaches the final days of his second term as national Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde is also reflecting on gains made over the past seven years he has held the AFN’s top post. And he knows there is still much to achieve for his successor, to be selected on July 7.

On June 30, the Lower Kootenay Band in B.C. announced that the remains of 182 people were found in unmarked graves close to the former St. Eugene's Mission residential school near the city of Cranbrook.

The crushing news on June 24 of 751 unmarked graves located at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School on Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan followed the May 27 discovery of the remains of 215 children buried in unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops.

The day before the tragic finding in Saskatchewan, The Tyee spoke to Bellegarde from Regina, the capital of the province he first called home, where he was born 58 years ago at the Fort Qu’Appelle Indian Hospital, and where he was raised as a member of the Little Black Bear First Nation.

The Tyee: What next steps would you like to see taken regarding residential schools following the recent revelation in Kamloops?

Perry Bellegarde: Making sure that the [139] sites have adequate human and financial resources in place to have the proper research and investigation done, and making sure that [the Truth and Reconciliation Commission] Calls to Action 71 to 76 are fully implemented — that’s the investigation and commemoration at these school sites — the honouring of these lost souls. Those 215 children are speaking to all of us and waking us all up and saying, “We’re here, don’t forget us.”

We need to bring together the Elders. This is sacred work. Chiefs and councils and survivors have to lead, because it’s a validation of the survivors’ words that there were hidden deaths at these schools.

We also need to keep pushing for an apology from the Catholic Church — the only church to not apologize for [its] role in the administration of the residential-school system — the genocide against First Nations people in Canada. We’re still going to advocate at the Vatican for His Holiness, Pope Francis, to come to Canada and make that apology to the survivors on the land where it happened. That’s Call to Action number 58.

Have you ever met with a Catholic Pope?

No, but we’ve been working with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to plan a meeting in the Vatican with Pope Francis. But COVID-19 hit, and the federal election happened [within] the past two years. (Canada’s bishops announced the Vatican visit by Indigenous leaders had been approved on June 29.)

Would you be part of that meeting?

There will be a new national Chief, but I would hope to be part of it because we laid the groundwork for this going forward.

You mentioned COVID-19. How do you think the federal government has handled the pandemic with Indigenous communities?

I think in working partnership with the Chiefs and councils, it’s been quite proactive. Seventy per cent of First Nations people have been given their second doses, and that was targeted over a year ago, because of the overcrowded housing conditions and lack of access to potable water. We made the case that First Nations should be a priority and the federal government listened.

First Nations were identified as some of the most vulnerable, so there should be extra energy and efforts to make sure that the PPE needs were met and addressed, and that human and financial resources were adequate to make sure that this didn’t spread rapidly amongst First Nations communities.

I’m going to give a shout-out to Valerie Gideon [the associate deputy minister of Indigenous Services Canada], who has done a great job in terms of response time to the different regions, and different Chiefs and councils across Canada that said, "Hey, we need PPE, we need extra resources in housing, we need to get the Department of National Defence up into the territories."

Detractors were always saying it was never fast enough. But I think if you didn’t prioritize First Nations people, the numbers would be tragic and they’re not.

When I hear potable water, I can’t wrap my head around the fact that we still have boil-water advisories in First Nations communities in 2021.

Six years ago, we released a document called “Closing the Gap” to influence party platforms during the 2015 federal election campaign.

The gap that I keep talking about, which is totally unacceptable, is that according to the United Nations Human Development Index in recent years, Canada was ranked sixth in quality of life. But when you apply the same indices to First Nations, we were 63rd.

That socioeconomic gap represents everything we need to fix, like overcrowded housing; lack of access to potable water; caps on education, inadequate health care; a disproportionate number of our people in jails; the high youth suicide rate; the more than 40,000 children in foster care; the high numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

We need strategic, sustainable investments to close the gap, because once it closes, that’s not only good for First Nations people but for everybody in Canada. Then you have First Nations people who are healthy with good housing and quality education, and access to employment opportunities, and there’s not going to be a high drain on the social-welfare system or justice system or policing system or even the child-welfare system.

Closing the gap was key and meant access to the basic fundamental human right of access to potable drinking water. It moved from over 140 boil-water advisories [in 2017] to 51.

In the 2019 throne speech, there’s a whole chapter dedicated to Indigenous issues, and we lobbied for that because that’s the government’s priorities reflected in the federal budget. That’s how you influence the system.

When was the last time there was a chapter dedicated to Indigenous peoples? The answer is never.

In that chapter, it called for the infrastructure gap to be closed by 2030, including access to broadband [and to eliminate all long-term drinking water advisories on reserve by 2021].

There is progress — but progress does not mean parity.

On National Indigenous Peoples Day, June 21, Bill C-15, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, received royal assent. Will this help advance that progress?

Everything helps.

Five very important bills have been passed during my tenure. Bill C-5, which created [a new holiday], the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30.

Bill C-8 passed, which means that anyone becoming a Canadian citizen has to take an oath acknowledging [Aboriginal and] treaty rights, because that’s how Canada was built, as a treaty relationship between the Crown and First Nations people. So we’re sharing — we didn’t give up anything — land and resources based on peaceful co-existence and mutual respect.

Bill C-91, [An Act respecting Indigenous languages] — and the government just announced Ron Ignace, [former Chief of the Skeetchestn Indian Band in B.C.] as the first commissioner of Indigenous languages.

Language is fundamental as to who we are as First Nations people. It’s linked to sovereignty and self-government.

851px version of ChiefBellegardeSigning.jpg
As AFN national Chief, Bellegarde signs the 2017 ‘Assembly of First Nations — Canada Memorandum of Understanding on Joint Priorities’ with PM Justin Trudeau as Minister of Crown Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett looks on. Bellegarde calls his relations with Trudeau and his government ‘respectful.’ In his role, he says, ‘We have to get along with all of the leaders, and I do. You don’t agree on every issue, but you find two or three that you do agree on and move them forward.’ Photo via the AFN website.

Bill C-92, [An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families]. We have over 40,000 children in foster care, and we need to start focusing on prevention, not apprehension.

First Nations law is paramount in C-92. Chiefs and councils that do not want federal or provincial law on child welfare applying to them can create their own law and exert their jurisdiction.

Finally, Bill C-15 requires the establishment of a national action with First Nations people within two years. The laws of Canada that aren’t in sync with the declaration have to be brought in line. That is major.

But one of the very important aspects of C-15 is that doctrines of superiority are referenced as being illegal and racist now, and specifically mentions the doctrines of discovery and terra nullius [nobody’s land]. First Nations people were here, so how could the land be vacant?

That will have a huge impact on the comprehensive claims policy in Canada.

And we still have the Indian Act that we have to move beyond.

Is it time to get rid of the Indian Act?

It’s a process, Chris.

There are two things in Canada that hurt First Nations people. Number one: the residential-school policy, which was a genocide of our people. It killed the Indian in the child. It broke down your self-identity, your family, your community, your nation — everything good about being a First Nations person is no good. Your long hair is no good; they cut if off. Your language is no good; they banned it. On top of that, you had malnutrition and overcrowded living conditions in the schools.

There was experimentation. Some kids got good drugs, some got bad drugs. There was starvation and then the abuse — physical abuse, mental abuse, sexual abuse. You’re not healthy coming out of those institutions.

The second thing that hurt our people was the Indian Act that was put in place in 1876. That was all about the oppression of First Nations people to keep us on the reserves so the land and resources could be exploited and developed. We couldn’t leave the reserve without a permit until 1951. We didn’t have access to a lawyer until 1951. We couldn’t even vote in federal elections until [1960].

The Indian Act broke down our systems of government and imposed a two-year elective system. It broke down our clans, our hereditary Chiefs, our longhouse models; it outlawed the potlatch systems and the Sun Dance — all of our sacred ceremonies.

So, colonization, oppression and genocide. We still feel the intergenerational trauma of those two things.

Should we get rid of the Indian Act? Of course.

You have 634 reserves in Canada. They’re all at different levels. The question the Chiefs and councils and people should be asking is how they can move beyond the Indian Act to exert our nationhood and laws and jurisdiction. Some reserves are doing it individually; some are doing it as collectives, such as the 17 [bands] of the Secwepemc or Shuswap Nation in B.C. Some are looking at treaty areas, like Treaty 3 in Ontario or Treaty 4 in Saskatchewan.

We’re getting rid of the Indian Act piece by piece, but it’s a process.

In a recent interview, Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya said he would like the Indian Act replaced with a ‘self-government act’ that would lead to the establishment of a sovereign Indigenous nation with its own parliament and citizenship, ‘on the same par as Canada.’ Is that viable?

We’re diverse. The Mohawks are different from the Dene. The Dene are different from the Cree and the Haida and the Nisga’a. You have to be flexible in your approach. You’re not going to have one-size-fits-all. You have to be respectful of where people are at.

So Chief, what do you imagine emerging along the lines of self-government?

I prefer the word self-determination. Some reserves are doing it individually. You have the Nisga’a, Sechelt, the James Bay Cree and 11 reserves in the Yukon because they have their self-government agreements.

In addition to common law and civil law in Canada, you have to start recognizing First Nations law and jurisdiction. That’s what transforming the justice system is all about, and it’s got to be a phased approach.

You also have a federal government and provincial governments outlined in the Constitution. But people forgot about First Nations government that will have to be worked into the system in a respectful way.

But it’s all about getting outside of the Indian Act and reconstituting ourselves as nations and utilizing that right to self-determination.

How do you imagine the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canada’s federal government looking 25 years from now?

If there’s sustained investment every fiscal year in housing, water, infrastructure, education, health care and mental health, that gap is going to be closed.

Everybody has good quality education and employment opportunities, and economic self-sufficiency. Everybody is sharing from the land and resource wealth. Everybody embracing their language and culture. Canada is stronger through respect for the diversity that’s here, and a country that is free from racism and discrimination.

That’s what I see. We are all related, we are all connected.

I am going to a Sundance lodge this week to pray for not only people but our relatives — the four-leggeds, the fliers, the swimmers, the crawlers, Mother Earth, Father Sky, Grandmother Moon, Grandfather Sun.

In 25 years, if we can embrace our Indigenous worldview, you’re going to have a better country and a better world.

We’re just getting through the COVID-19 pandemic. But that will pale in comparison to a bigger issue if we don’t get our heads around it — and that’s climate change. And that’s something we all have to get our heads around in every country in the world. That there’s a global movement to make sure that our children and grandchildren and those yet unborn have access to clean air and clean water and clean land to live on.

Is it not an opportunity to take advantage of the Indigenous tradition of respect for the land?

Yes, getting Elders’ Traditional Knowledge to help the policy and legislation going forward. That’s huge, no question.

Any day now we’re expecting an announcement about the appointment of the next Governor General, who will likely be Indigenous. Are you sure you’re moving back to Saskatchewan from Ottawa?

Chris, I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s in the Creator’s hands. It’s an honour and a privilege to even be considered for anything like that.

I’ve always considered myself as an oskâpêwis, which in Cree is a helper or a servant for the people.

The last seven years have been full and eventful for me as national Chief, and I am going to take some time to rest and reset.

Have you been approached?

No, I have not been formally approached.

Would you take the job?

It would be an honour and a privilege to even be considered.

Do you speak French?

(Bellegarde proceeds to speak in French, Cree and Ukrainian, and when discovering the writer is of Ukrainian descent, joins him in singing a popular Ukrainian Christmas carol, “God Eternal”).

We’ll have to go Ukrainian Christmas carolling if you invite me to Rideau Hall.

Laughs.

851px version of ChiefBellegardeProfile.jpg
Multilingual Bellegarde, who can easily be coaxed into singing a Ukrainian Christmas carol, says federal parties have approached him to run for office, but remains mum on which and where. Photo via the AFN website.

More seriously, sir, do you think it is time Canada had an Indigenous Governor General?

Chris, I’ve always said we need more First Nations people in all leadership positons in Canada and the world. I would love to see First Nations people on the Supreme Court of Canada; as deputy ministers; more First Nations people in the Liberal party, Conservative party, the NDP and the Green party bringing change in policy from within. I’d like to see more First Nations people as CEOs and on boards of directors in the private sector.

I think First Nations people should be in leadership and management positions in both the public and private sectors. And I’m going to keep advocating for that so that our young people can see themselves reflected in these positions of power and authority.

Have you considered running in the next federal election, which could be called weeks from now?

No, I haven’t. Like I said, the last seven years have been eventful and very full. I wanted to focus on July 6 finishing strong and finishing hard, and make sure that Bill C-15 got passed by the Senate.

We’re still dealing with the child-welfare case and trying to get that resolved in terms of the federal government’s request for a judicial review of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision.

Have you received any indication the government will abandon that case?

I’ve encouraged the government to come up with a satisfactory offer so the children and plaintiffs in the class-action suit will feel good that it meets the Human Rights Tribunal directive and to stop fighting us in court, because it’s just a waste of energy and time. It might take 10 years if we stay in the legal system, but we will eventually win.

But I would encourage the government to come up with something that’s fair, so that there’s no further racism or discrimination or abuse against children. I’m hoping we can resolve it sooner than later.

How would you characterize your relationship with Prime Minister Trudeau and his government?

Respectful. As [national Chief] of the Assembly of First Nations, you have to be able to open doors and have access to the policy and legislative decision-makers. I am not Liberal, Conservative, NDP, Green or Bloc Québécois. We have to get along with all of the leaders, and I do. You don’t agree on every issue, but you find two or three that you do agree on and move them forward.

If you can’t open doors and influence the throne speech and/or the federal budget, what good are you to the people at the reserve level [to advocate for] better housing, education and health care?

We don’t have a treaty with the Liberals or the Conservatives. We have a treaty with the Crown. No matter who gets into power, they have to implement those treaties according to the spirit and intent and maintain the honour of the Crown. That treaty relationship is foundational to Canada being a country and building this great country — and was all about peaceful co-existence and mutual respect and benefiting from sharing resource wealth. That contributes to the overall growth of Canada’s economy and the GDP.

Have any of the parties reached out to you to run as their candidate?

We’ve had some pretty informed discussions with a few parties.

Would you share which ones?

Well, you’ve got five parties.

The Bloc approached you?

I don’t live in Quebec. But we’ve always had good relationships and dialogues with the other four parties.

If you were to throw your hat into the race, for which party would you run?

That all depends on the party platform and policies, and which ones are more in-tune and open to influence and respect for First Nations issues and priorities, which indeed are Canada’s.

What’s your ask of all the parties regarding Indigenous issues in the next federal election campaign?

Maintain momentum. We have two documents that are very key to help shape and craft their party platforms: “Closing the Gap” and “Honouring Promises” [from the 2019 federal election campaign], which speaks to everything that needs to be done, including full implementation of the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s] 94 Calls to Action and the calls for justice from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls; continued investments in housing, water, infrastructure and education; policing as an essential service; and transforming the justice system.

In her emotional farewell speech in the House of Commons on June 15, outgoing Nunavut New Democrat member of Parliament Mumilaaq Qaqqaq said “This institution, and the country, has been created off the backs, trauma and displacement of Indigenous people.” Has it been a struggle for you to be dispassionate, because I get angry when I listened to her remarks and hear some of the things you have said?

Oh yeah, but what’s the point of anger? It’s like when you get a flat tire, you’re going to get mad. But is that going to change the flat tire? Get down on your knees and get to work changing that tire.

The same principle can apply to anything in life. It’s okay to get angry. But transform and use that anger into something positive in bringing about change. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Reconciliation is hard. Changing policy and legislation is hard. Building a better country together is difficult with all the wounds and scars of the past. But we should be celebrating our resiliency. At every pow wow and gathering of First Nations people I say that.

We can learn from the past. We don’t need to live there. We know the residential schools hurt our people. It was genocide. We know the Indian Act was colonization and oppression.

Let’s work beyond that and provide hope that we can create a country that’s respectful of our people too, in addition to French and English [settlers]. Let’s create a country that’s respectful of the diversity that includes our people — a country where the treaties are honoured and respected and implemented. Peaceful co-existence and mutual respect.

There has been a national conversation about removing public statues of historic figures, such as John A. Macdonald, who are associated with oppression of Indigenous peoples. How important are symbols?

In places of prominence, they can be removed. But they should be put in museums, and educate the public about the good, the bad and ugly. The good things that happened and the terrible things that happened. It’s all about educational awareness. Truth before reconciliation.

They took down John A. Macdonald’s statue in Victoria Park in Regina. That’s a very powerful statement. They can put up [a statue of] Chief Piapot, one of our heroes, who helped block the railway cutting through Treaty 4 territory. But nobody knows about him.

John A. Macdonald was the first prime minister of Canada. We get that. John A. Macdonald’s statue opens wounds because he was a father of genocide through the residential schools.

One of the things that I’ve advocated for in the provinces is that they have to change their school curriculums, from kindergarten to Grade 12, to include residential schools and the impact they had on First Nations people — and treaty and Aboriginal title rights, and the Indian Act, so that people learn and know about these things from a First Nations perspective as well.

In Ottawa, cabinet ministers and government officials will begin a news conference saying we’re on, in this case, ‘traditional unceded Algonquin territory.’ What do you make of that land acknowledgement?

I think it’s a positive thing, Chris, because it makes people think and realize that people actually lived there before.

We have over 60 different First Nations languages, so it wasn’t just Canada being built by two nations that spoke English and French — languages I love. Different nations and tribes lived here, and by opening up the land for settlement and helping the newcomers survive the winter through medicines and providing food, there was a real interdependency at one time. We helped build Canada and people should know that history.

But is there a risk of being smug with that land acknowledgement?

Yeah. You say, “I’d like to acknowledge the Dene Nation on whose ancestral lands we're meeting,” but what are you doing about trying to help with land-claims policy change or specific claims? These are lawful obligations that the Crown has to commit to. Let’s fix the comprehensive claims policy because it’s based on termination of rights, title and jurisdiction, not recognition of rights, title and jurisdiction. That would be meaningful and helpful.

What work needs to be done from within the Indigenous community to achieve the objectives you have highlighted?

Capacity-building. Utilize your language, land, laws, people and different forms of government — the five elements of self-determination. But how as a people do we want to move beyond the Indian Act and re-establishing our own jurisdiction and governance?

I don’t want to mirror the white-man’s system where they have the executive, legislative and judicial branches, but we had the same systems in our societies and clans.

But we have dealt with so much intergenerational trauma from the effects of residential schools and the Indian Act on First Nations people — and still see so much alcohol and drug abuse from self-medication — that we have to get healthy again.

The old people used to always talk about two systems of education — literacy, and numeracy and science — but equally important were languages, ceremonies, traditions and customs. There’s no alcohol or drugs in the First Nations system. We’re bound by our seven teachings of truth, honesty, love, respect, courage, wisdom and humility.

We have work to do. Let’s provide hope that we can get this done for our children, grandchildren and those not yet born.  [Tyee]

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