Saskatchewan’s Perry Bellegarde took 63% of the 464 first-ballot votes cast in Winnipeg on December 10th to become the new National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Quebec’s Ghislain Picard, the assembly’s interim leader, finished second, while Leon Jourdain, former chief of the Lac La Croix First Nation in Ontario, finished last.
Bellegarde’s campaign focused on self-determination and a pledge to restore pride among First Nations. Due to the restructuring of the AFN, Bellegarde will have an extra six months added to his term as national chief. Many argue the assembly should wean itself off federal funding, while others have argued it doesn’t reflect the views and concerns of grassroots people. Leon Jourdain said in his concession speech, “This is not a loss for me; it’s only the beginning.” He added that the choice of Bellegarde indicates the chiefs have decided to go down the same path. He warned the decision will “haunt us all,” as some in the crowd booed.
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak has been an outspoken critic of the AFN and formed an alternative group called the Treaty Alliance. Nepinak, who shared the stage with Bellegarde while he took his oath of office, is cautiously optimistic about the new AFN national chief. “Anybody who tries to stand in the way of the Treaty Alliance, whether it be regionally or nationally, would be making a mistake,” Nepinak said. “I hope that doesn’t happen.”
The new National Chief of the AFN warned it will no longer be business as usual when it comes to development on First Nations land. In his fired up victory speech to the 464 chiefs and AFN delegates, Bellegarde singled out pipelines and energy development the frontlines in his battle to put First Nations on equal footing with the rest of Canada. “To the people across this great land, I say to you, that the values of fairness and tolerance which Canada exports to the world are a lie when it comes to our people,” Bellegarde said.“Canada will no longer develop pipelines, no longer develop transmission lines or any infrastructure on our lands as business as usual. That is not on.”
He pledged to oppose any project that does not share profits with First Nations. “We will no longer accept poverty and hopelessness while resource companies and governments grow fat off our lands and territories and resources. If our lands and resources are to be developed, it will be done only with our fair share of the royalties, with our ownership of the resources and jobs for our people. It will be done on our terms and our timeline.” His final remarks drew a loud response from the crowd: “Canada is Indian land. This is my truth and this is the truth of our peoples.”