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AFN must provide a unified voice, says Bellegarde


By Shari Narine Windspeaker Contributor SASKATOON







Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde is hoping to go from being the Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief for Saskatchewan to heading the organization. It will be Bellegarde’s second run at the position.

Bellegarde was the first candidate to officially declare his intentions to take over the AFN’s top job. Bellegarde challenged Shawn Atleo in 2009, conceding to him in a record eight ballot vote. Bellegarde didn’t run in 2012, when Atleo was successful in garnering a second term. However, Atleo stepped down in May 2014.

“I’ve been involved in First Nations politics all my life at every level. Basically, a servant working with and for First Nations people,” said Bellegarde. “It’s all about being an agent for change, a catalyst for change and getting things done. At every level I’ve gotten things done that improved the quality of life for our people.”

Bellegarde has an impressive record in Saskatchewan where he “was part of a team” that worked toward opening the All Nations hospital in Fort Qu’Appelle;  helped stabilize FSIN’s funding through new slot machines for Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority; brought about a seventh First Nations casino; and, negotiated a compensation package for First Nation veterans.

“I believe I’ve demonstrated that ability, that dedication and commitment to get things done and I just want to bring it to a national level,” he said.

Bellegarde has been running his campaign on the basis that a “whole transformational change” is needed.

“We really do need a whole transformational change in Canada as it deals with Aboriginal rights and title and treaty implementation,” he said. “We’ve got to find new ways, new mechanisms to get that done.”

But change is also needed within the AFN, he says, to ensure the organization remains “relevant, responsive and respectful of the diversity across Canada.”

Bellegarde said the government would like to see the organization fall to infighting and now more than ever, the AFN has to provide a unified voice for all First Nations members – including those living off-reserve, which 2006 figures indicate is as high as 60 per cent. A strategy needs to be developed, he said, which takes into account adequate housing, employment, and training opportunities for those living off reserve.

“We need a new fiscal relationship with Canada. The contribution agreements that we signed just don’t meet the need. They don’t even keep up with inflation and they’re not even based on population. That has to be addressed,” said Bellegarde.

Closing the gap in funding between the First Nations and non-First Nations population in areas such as education, health, infrastructure, and child welfare is a priority for Bellegarde.

“What people in Canada have to realize (is) that there’s a high social cost to poverty,” he said.

Resource revenue sharing is key and has been strengthened by the recent Supreme Court of Canada’s decision on the Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia case.

“We have to address that and if we do that … that’s also linked to self-determination and that’s also linked to economic self-sufficiency. You can’t have economic self-determination without talking about economic self-sufficiency,” he said.

Bellegarde will also continue to push for an inquiry into murdered and missing Aboriginal women and girls. But he says the issue can’t stop at an inquiry. It needs to address the root causes, which include poverty, homelessness and substance abuse.

Enhancing First Nations’ language is also important. Bellegarde says studies show that Indigenous people who are fluent in their language by the age of 13 have more success in school and in life.

“I want to bring my experience and my education of getting things done to a national level,” said Bellegarde. “I’m trying to show people that I’m not just talk; that I will get things done and I’ll give my 110 per cent effort to get things done and I won’t quit. I’m committed.”