‘Progress doesn’t mean parity,’ Perry Bellegarde says as he works to improve conditions for First Nations people, particularly by influencing the federal budget

As the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), Perry Bellegarde has spent the past six years navigating the often fractious relationships between Indigenous communities and politicians, corporations and band leaders themselves. After two terms, the former chief of Little Black Bear Nation in Saskatchewan will step down from the national post in July. Given his friendly relations with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, some wonder if another public office may be in his future. Governor General Bellegarde? We spoke in early March.

Why are you not running for a third term as AFN leader?

I’ve been in First Nations politics for over 30 years. By not running for national chief, I can devote the four months I have in my term to getting legislation passed, especially Bill C-15, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It’s been introduced for a second reading but I want to hear the words “royal assent.” Influencing the federal budget is also important.

What do you hope to see in that budget?

One of the your most important jobs as national chief is to ensure every year that each government department has adequate resources for programs that affect First Nations people. There is such a big socioeconomic gap between First Nations and the rest of Canadians. You’ve got to keep investing in housing and water and infrastructure and proper schools and university, technical and vocational training. Another priority is treaty implementation and adequate resources for comprehensive land claims.

That’s a long list. Given Ottawa’s troubling fiscal situation, what funding do you actually expect to see?

Well, we have $ 27 billion dedicated over seven fiscal years to improving conditions for First Nations people. That might seem like a lot but our needs had been put to the side for more than 20 years. People need to understand that progress doesn’t mean parity. We’re still not at the same starting line in terms of quality of health care, educational opportunities, employment and housing. We still have more than 50 boil-water advisories. We still have too many of our people in jails. You know how the governing process works: you have to influence the throne speech. In the 2019 throne speech, there was a whole chapter dedicated to First Nations issues. When was the last time there was even a sentence about First Nations priorities in any throne speech? But that’s got to be reflected now in the federal budgeting process, so going from promises to actual investment.

What issues concern you with other levels of government?

With the provinces, there are always jurisdiction issues around permits to First Nations for gaming and cannabis. You have to remember that we don’t just have three levels of government in Canada. There are four. The British North America Act at the federal level outlines provincial authority and responsibility, then provinces outline municipal authority, but you also have First Nations governments, and our jurisdiction is often forgotten in the dialogue.

Some First Nations, including yours in Saskatchewan, rely heavily on gaming and cannabis. Do you have any ambivalence about those industries being such big economic drivers for your communities?

Look, creating our own wealth is key. I signed a 25-year gaming agreement when I was chief in Saskatchewan, which facilitated two casinos to be built, created close to 2,000 employment opportunities and generated millions in profit for the 74 bands and the provincial government. And we did it with responsible gaming in mind. The First Nations Addiction Rehabilitation Foundation is part of that. But that’s only one industry. We’ve got to expand beyond gaming to softwood lumber, mining, ecotourism, green energy, oil and gas. There are good examples of First Nations getting involved in a big way in clean, green energy. The T’Sou-ke Nation is totally on solar power.

Just as there are tensions with different levels of governments, First Nations also disagree on some economic development issues, especially around pipelines. How have you navigated those conflicting views?

Many First Nations support pipeline development and some are opposed. If people can embrace the UN declaration as a framework for reconciliation and get the rights and title holders involved, that will create economic stability. We also want to move beyond impact benefit agreements on major developments to equity ownership so we can create sustainable economic wealth. Let’s remember that the economy is a 100 per cent-owned subsidiary of the environment and First Nations people always find the balance between respecting the water and the land.

Are you happy with the progress on those private sector partnerships?

It’s starting. The Mi’kmaq people’s deal with Clearwater Seafoods is huge, but we have a long way to go. There are always barriers. We need greater access to capital and capability training so our companies have capacity to bid on megaproject procurement contracts, and governments could facilitate that by setting aside a percentage of government contracts for First Nations businesses.

Over the course of your leadership, what issue has personally touched you the most?

What is really perplexing is the high youth suicide rate among our young people. They have no hope and are turning to alcohol and drugs as self-medication for their pain. I always talk to young men and women about the importance of balancing the two systems of education and walking in both worlds. We need strong literacy and numeracy and university and skills training but equally important are your languages and ceremonies and traditions, to know who you are and where you come from. Getting that pride back to feel good about who you are is so important. When you see sicknesses and overcrowded housing, our babies with scabs on their skin because of poor water, that just compounds problems.

So what’s next for you? Your name has been floated for Governor General.

[Long belly laugh.] It’s an honour to serve. I don’t know what will come next.

What do you want to come next?

We have our election in July and then I’ll take a few months off. In Cree, we have a word, oskâpêwis, which means servant or helper of the people. We’re taught to equate being a leader with being a servant and that will always be part of me.

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That concept of servant leadership has been bandied about in corporate circles, the idea that the CEO’s job is not to wield power but enable others to reach their potential. What values from Indigenous cultures could businesses borrow?

Both public and private sector leaders should lean on the First Nations world view that we’re all connected. Every morning and every night, we give thanks to our creator and acknowledge the gifts from Mother Earth, Father Sky, Grandmother Moon, Grandfather Sun, our relatives the stars. We acknowledge the ones that sit in the east, the south, the west, and the north. We acknowledge our four-legged relatives, the ones that slide, crawl and swim. We acknowledge the male plants and the female plants. We acknowledge the four grandmother spirits that look after the waters: rainwater, freshwater, saltwater, and the water that breaks when life comes. And then we say, “We are the two-leggeds.” If CEOs could embrace that world view, you would get better corporate plans and better policies.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

TORONTO STAR