APTN National News
In just over a week, chiefs from across Canada will converge on Winnipeg to decide who will be the next national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
They’ll have three choices – Perry Bellegarde, Leon Jourdain and Ghislain Picard.
One of them will need about 300 votes to win and the chiefs are the people who decide.
The people, or the grassroots, don’t get to vote for national chief so APTN National News took questions to the candidates for them.
The same questions were emailed to the candidates who were allowed an unfiltered chance to speak directly to the people.
Picard’s responses ran Monday. Today, we hear from Bellegarde, who is taking another run at becoming national chief after placing second in the 2009 election.
APTN: Why do you want the job of National Chief?
PB: Serving our First Nations as a leader is my life’s work. I believe that the experience I’ve gained over the past two decades combined with what I have accomplished in positions of increasing responsibility has prepared me to become the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Details regarding my experience and accomplishments can be found at www.perrybellegarde.com.
So why am I seeking the office of National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations?
My short answer is to make a difference through positive changes in the lives of First Nations people. But one statistic brings into focus my powerful reason. The United Nations quality of life indicators show that Canada is sixth in terms of quality of life, but First Nations are 63rd.
First Nations people were never meant to be poor.
We were always intended to share in the vast resources of our homeland, one of the richest countries in the world. Instead, we are too often perceived to be a burden on the taxpayers. This perception exists because Canada has failed to acknowledge the fact that the high quality of life enjoyed by Canadians has been, for the most part, derived from our natural resource wealth. If First Nations are to achieve self-determination, resource revenue sharing is an imperative – and our right. But while we have rights, we also have responsibilities that were passed down to us by our ancestors, the responsibilities of territorial stewardship. It is critical that we assume our role as leaders in environmental knowledge and partner with leaders in mitigating the environmental crisis before us. This is a challenge like none other.
It must be met with determination, innovation and viable solutions. We must create formal resource revenue sharing agreements that reflect principles of environmental stewardship and protectionism. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples stipulates that First Nations peoples have the right to demand free, prior and informed consent from governments and industry when resource developments are proposed or undertaken. As First Nations people, we must recognize that our duty goes far beyond the ‘duty to consult and accommodate’; it is our duty to ensure that Mother Earth is delivered safely into the hands of future generations.
APTN: What effect is funding cuts having on the AFN`s ability to lobby for First Nation interests, essentially where`s the money going to come from to get the job done?
PB: It’s absolutely true that a continuous string of funding cuts have hampered the AFN’s capacity to act. There are fewer resources today than there once were. In the short term, we need to reallocate resources to be effective. And the first order of work is to establish our top priorities so we can clearly communicate them to governments in Canada. That’s what I am continuously doing as I meet with Chiefs and First Nations leaders across our territories. With those priorities firmly established and communicated, as we work through them, we need to access the required funding by illustrating, with unprecedented clarity, that as First Nations succeed, so does the rest of Canada.
APTN: How will you work with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, or whoever wins the next general election?
PB: The test of true leadership is the ability to work with, and influence, the powers that be, regardless of who they happen to be. I have done that before, at a First Nations level, at a tribal council level, at a provincial level and at a national level. In the course of that work, I have dealt with the full range of elected leaders. Not every working relationship was easy, but we made them work, by focusing on the issues that needed to be addressed. And that’s what I will do again with whomever is in power federally.
APTN: To your critics, the AFN is fractured and unworkable. What will you do to unite the organization and make it effective?
PB: That process has already begun by the Chiefs Committee on Nation Building. I support their ongoing work, fundamental to which is the review of the AFN Charter. In meeting with hundreds of Chiefs and First Nations peoples across Canada, I hear, day in and day out about the issues that matter, and I hear about proposed solutions and strategies. That’s step one in the process of reinvigorating the AFN – to have First Nations leaders take an active role in defining the issues, the outcomes and the pathway to succeeding. I believe in processes that unite rather than divide. And I believe that through ceremonies we can bring our people together.
APTN: The chair of the Specific Claims Tribunal wrote in a report that if it doesn’t get more resources it will fail. What will you do?
PB: As Chief of the AFN it will be a priority to pressure the federal government to live up to its commitments in ‘Justice at Last’ so that Specific Claims can be resolved in a fair and timely manner.
The annual report to Parliament by Justice Harry Slade lays out the critical concerns related to the operation of the Specific Claims Tribunal namely a lack of judges to deal with the case load, insufficient resources and changes to how the Tribunal is administered which compromise its independence. However, there are also other significant problems with the Specific Claims process. The federal government has not lived up to its commitments in ‘Justice at Last’ to settle claims fairly through negotiation and instead has pushed claims into the tribunal process. The tribunal was supposed to only be a last resort when claims could not be resolved in negotiations but instead in many cases it has become the only resort. At the same time the federal government has cut funding both to research and to negotiations making it difficult for First Nations to participate in the claims process.
The process to set up the tribunal was a joint one. The federal government must return to joint discussions engaging the AFN and First Nations and First Nations organizations to fix the problems within the Specific Claims Process. More judges need to be appointed to the tribunal with the provinces who release judges to sit on the tribunal being provided with the appointment of replacement judges. The Specific Claims Tribunal must be independent and therefore be taken from under the Administration Tribunals Support Services Canada. The federal government must provide sufficient resources to research and develop claims, to negotiate claims and to adjudicate claims that cannot be settled by negotiation before the tribunal. The federal government must rethink its approach to Specific Claims and live up to its commitments in ‘Justice at Last’ to resolve claims through negotiations.
If Canada is willing, Specific Claims can be resolved by negotiation. We have proven this in Saskatchewan where over $1 billion has come to First Nations from Specific Claims settlements and over one million acres of land has been transferred to reserve under Treaty Land Entitlement and other Specific Claims settlements.
APTN: What are you going to do with the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act?
PB: The answer to that question is unambiguous – have First Nations take control of First Nations education, while concurrently pushing to ensure that the funding for it is equitable to the rest of Canada.
APTN: Chief’s salaries are a big topic at the grassroots level. For example, should a chief make $400,000 a year when 80 per cent of his or her band members live on $400 a month, should there be limits?
PB: First Nations are, and are intended to be, autonomous, in their decisions and I fully respect that. Any First Nation, where its citizens are dissatisfied with any element of its governance and administration, deals with that issue at the First Nations. That’s the democratic system that is inherent to individual First Nations.
APTN: What do you want to see accomplished after your term in office?
PB: I intend to reconnect the Assembly of First Nations with First Nations in accordance with the following priorities:
– Establishing processes for self-determination which include revenue sharing, ensuring environmental sustainability, adherence to the duty to consult and accommodate and international standards such as free, prior and informed consent.
– Recognition and implementation of inherent Aboriginal and treaty rights.
– Establishing a new fiscal relationship with the federal Crown (e.g., removal of the long standing 2 per cent cap on federal funding).
– An immediate action plan and inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
– Committed focus on the revitalization and retention of indigenous languages.
– Upholding indigenous rights as human rights in international forums.
Tomorrow: Leon Jourdain.