New AFN national chief Perry Bellegarde on native poverty and the ‘cultural genocide’ of residential schools
Perry Bellegarde was elected Wednesday as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), which represents people in First Nations communities. He told reporter Mark Kennedy what he hopes to accomplish.
Q: What’s your priority?
A: You’ve got to start bringing back the unity (within the AFN) because elections always seem to divide people. Externally you’ve got to start dealing with governments, federal and provincial. The relationship we had with government was unnecessarily strained. It doesn’t have to be that way. So let’s get to the table.
Q: Do you know why that strain is there?
A: Don’t know. Not until we engage and have a full-fledged dialogue with their cabinet team and the players there. We’ll find out. People don’t get it.
The statistic that rings in my head is six versus 63rd. Canada, according to the United Nations Human Development Index, is rated sixth in terms of quality of life. You apply those same indices to indigenous peoples, we are 63rd. So there’s a gap.
Q: Tell me what that means.
A: What that means is poverty. There’s 14 people living in one house with two bedrooms. There’s no access to potable water. There’s no access to schools. There’s inadequate health care. There’s First Nations children in care. There’s epidemics with youth suicides. There’s disproportionate First Nations people in jails. The list will go on and on and on.
Q: Tell me about how you grew up.
A: I grew up on Little Black Bear (in Saskatchewan). I was born in 1962. Hunting, fishing, trapping. If we didn’t hunt, we didn’t eat. It’s that simple. Chopped wood for a wood stove. Hauling snow for water. We didn’t have running water. All of that stuff. Done all of that.
Q: Was that poverty?
A: I didn’t think it was poverty. I just thought that’s how everybody lived. That’s just what I thought as a child growing up on the reserve. That’s what I assumed life to be. Straining water two or three times so there’s not as much bugs floating around. Not realizing that’s a tough way to live in 1960, 1970, 1980 and even beyond.
Q: Your dad went to the residential schools? Was he affected by it?
A: Oh yeah. He was a good father, lots of love. But you can say the alcohol was there. He passed on (when Bellegarde was 17) and mom picked up the reins and raised six boys. A part of the challenge we have in Canada now is the inter-generational effects of the residential schools. The school taught us it’s no good to be Indian. Cut your hair, your ceremonies are no good, your languages are no good. It’s cultural genocide. We’re still feeling the effects. And the stereotype that Indians are dumb, stupid, lazy, drunk, welfare. That permeated in the racism and discrimination.
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Q: On missing and murdered aboriginal women, how do you make the case to Stephen Harper that an inquiry is the right thing to do?
A: Very forcefully, very firmly. And question him. Do you think it’s right? Do you think it’s fair that these numbers keep going up? Would you want one of your siblings or one of your daughters or nieces to be affected in this manner? What would you do? What would you want to see as a parent? To try to get him understand that this is a big issue. It’s not just a crime. It’s a societal thing.
Q: He said it’s not a sociological phenomenon.
A: We need to open his eyes, we need to open his heart. And then we need to create that dialogue where that process can happen.
Q: Following a Supreme Court ruling, you say Canadians cannot cross your land (for an energy project) without your consent.
A: Exactly. It’s a huge arrow in our quiver. It’s a huge game-changer. When you start talking about a national energy strategy, we need to be part of that as indigenous peoples. We’re tired of this poverty that we face and the hopelessness. Everybody else seems to be benefiting from the land and resource wealth. But indigenous peoples aren’t. We need to be there every step of the way, not just for the jobs and the economic wealth creation. But as well, we bring the added element of respecting the land and water.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.