The new National Chief of the AFN Perry Bellegarde has already had some success in his administration’s first couple of months. His election signaled Prime Minister Stephen Harper to back away from the controversial First Nations Education Bill. In an unusual move, the prime minister changed his mind on the bill and has made efforts to publicize it. In a one on one meeting with the prime minister, the national chief was told the government was not going to move forward with the bill. That doesn’t mean Bellegarde does not have his work cut out for him on this issue. The Harper government has delayed its promised first Conservative balanced budget since it has been in government, due to tanking oil prices. Obviously, Finance Minister Joe Oliver will be looking to make cuts, and he is surely looking at the $1.9 billion that was set aside for First Nations education with the controversial bill.
In an interview with the Canadian press, Perry Bellegarde said he asked Harper during the one on one meeting not to use funds set aside for First Nations education in last year’s budget for another purpose, such as paying down the deficit to balance the books in an election year. The new national chief did not leave his meeting with the Prime Minister with any sense of optimism about the education money. “I can’t say yes or no. I didn’t get a warm, fuzzy feeling in terms of the request,” Bellegarde said. “So it’s a work in progress. But we’re not going to quit our efforts. We’re going to continue our lobby efforts. It’s just too important.”
Bellegarde says he warned the Prime Minister of the message it would send to First Nations if the government decides to re-profile the education money. “It would signal that they’re not in touch with communities, not in touch with the needs, and basically putting First Nations issues to the side when it comes to education, which is a travesty,” he said.
When it comes to First Nations education there is a 40% funding gap. On-reserve schools get $6500 per student for tuition, versus the $10,500 per student off-reserve. “That has to be addressed,” Bellegarde said in an interview with Eagle Feather News. “That is the issue. We need to look at the equitable funding, not equal, but equitable. We are not going to jeopardize First Nation jurisdiction.” Under the new national chief’s administration, the chiefs in the assembly passed a resolution that calls for a national fiscal framework respecting regional differences and approaches.
The Liberals called on the Conservatives to make the money tied to the education bill available now. “It’s time for the prime minister to stop playing politics with the futures of First Nations children by holding back essential funding for their education,” Liberal Aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett said in a statement. “The additional funding for First Nations education announced last year should flow immediately.”
Bellegarde also raised the need for a national inquiry into the missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in the meeting with the prime minister. Harper said that an inquiry wasn’t high on their radar. This is an issue that is one of the biggest black marks on Canadians. Close to 1200 Aboriginal women have been murdered or have gone missing. Bellegarde says two things are happening. In February, there is a round table that will give an action plan for a coordinated approach to end violence against Aboriginal women and girls. “But we are not going to quit on the push for this national inquiry,” Bellegarde told Eagle Feather News. “You’ve got to keep pushing hard. There is a federal election coming up and we have to make sure this is front and centre in all the federal parties’ platforms.”
Bellegarde believes that we need to get to the root causes of the violence. He believes an inquiry will educate everyone about the importance of the issue and change people’s attitudes. “Education leads to awareness, leads to understanding, and that leads to action. We are not going to stop our efforts to push for that,” said Bellegarde.
The national chief is also challenged with the relevance of the AFN, including the future of the political lobby group representing 639 First Nations across Canada. He must deal with severe funding cuts, pressures for the AFN to be more inclusive, and alternatives proposed by treaty organizations, issues big enough to threaten the organization’s existence.
In an interview with Grassroots News, Bellegarde says he is confidant in the future of the AFN. Speaking about the deep federal funding cuts that Aboriginal and First Nations organizations have faced, he states that the he and the chiefs know they need to develop new sources of financing so organizations are not so dependent on government funding and can withstand budget cuts. “We need to have an independent voice,” says Bellegarde. “Funding from the federal government can mean you can’t bite the hand that feeds you. In Saskatchewan,where I am from, we have the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Association,which provides $2.5 million a year to the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. TheAFN has formed a team to develop independent sources of funding including the development of business enterprises, foundations, membership fees and other ideas. Self-determination does not happen without economic self-determination. It is vital to have an organization like AFN to undertake the legal work and policy analysis during these times when the Harper Government is passing omnibus legislation which is making it easier to destroy the environment and violate our Treaty Rights.”
Bellegarde welcomes input from First Nations citizens and organizations like Idle No More. “The Corbier decision gave every First Nations person, both on and off-reserve, the right to vote for Chief and Council,” said Bellegarde. “Their views are at the top of the pile which filters down through Tribal Councils and provincial organizations to the AFN.”
Bellegarde is open to ideas of re-organizing or re-structuring First Nations along Treaty territories rather than provincial boundaries. Some First Nations would rather be grouped as Treaty One Chiefs or unite as Cree or Ojibway. “That is fine, so that we maintain a strong, united, national collective voice,” says Bellegarde. “We must be respectful of the diversity so that we can be relevant and responsive to the needs and issues identified by our people.” In his short time in office, the AFN is developing more outreach programs to hear the opinions of First Nations citizens, including the wisdom of the Elders, women, and youth. They also plan to use social media tools like Facebook and Twitter to get feedback.
Amending the Indian Act is another divisive issue. A private member’s bill, Bill C-438, has been put forward by Aboriginal Conservative MP Rob Clarke to amend the Indian Act. Bellegarde says he is opposed to the bill because, like the controversial First Nations Education bill, First Nations were not consulted. “You can’t tinker with something which has been in place since 1876 on your own, without consent,” Bellegarde told Grassroots News. “We will move beyond the Indian Act, but it is going to take time, and we are going to have to respect the jurisdictions of all the First Nations across Canada. This includes the over 500 First Nations who have treaties with Canada, groups and individual First Nations who have different arrangements like Sioux Valley, the Nisga’a, the James Bay Cree. Every First Nation is different and is going to require a special relationship which meets the needs of the people there.”
Bellegarde’s approach is not “business as usual” when it comes to development on First Nations land. In his victory speech, Bellegarde singled out pipelines and energy development as the front lines 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 opposition to any project that deprives First Nations a share of the profits. “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 one of the loudest responses from the crowd. “Canada is Indian land. This is my truth and this is the truth of our peoples.”
Bellegarde understands his position requires a balancing act of listening more than leading because the job is to represent the position of the chiefs on issues rather than dictate or decide what needs to be done. “While mainstream politicians may be elected to study and exercise their judgement on a number of policies and programs, the National Chief is bound by the decisions made by the Chiefs,” Bellegarde told Eagle Feather News. “Whenever I state a position on an issue, I am representing what the Chiefs want.”