Globe and Mail – ROB

As National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde is very much a politician. He’s comfortable at leadership altitude, pushing big themes with heads of government. That may have worked against him in 2003, when he lost his job as chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations to someone more focused on hard local realities. But since being elected leader of the AFN in 2014 and declaring an end to “business as usual” for megaprojects in Aboriginal territory, Bellegarde’s eagerness to engage at the political level has meshed well with the times. On the heels of the Supreme Court’s landmark 2014 decision to grant the Tsilhqot’in First Nation full title over 1,700 square kilometres in the British Columbia interior, the First Nations agenda has seen some big wins. Two years ago, the federal government finally launched an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. In 2016, Canada officially adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And in battles over pipeline and infrastructure projects, the Supreme Court has often ruled on the side of First Nations. Some of this has more to do with a change from the stiff arm of the Harper Conservatives to the Trudeau government’s friendlier approach. But as Bellegarde will tell you, his lobbying efforts deserve credit too.

In the three years since your forceful opening statement as AFN chief—when you said, “Canada is Indian land”—have things gone as you envisioned?

To me, there seems to be a greater awareness among Canadians about Indigenous rights and title and treaties, and the principle of peaceful coexistence and mutually benefiting from sharing the land and resource wealth. So things are starting to move. That statement in 2014 was, essentially: “We need to be involved. We need to be included. You have a duty to consult and accommodate.” Now, with the UN declaration, we have moved beyond that to “free prior and informed consent,” which basically means our full involvement and full inclusion from start to finish on any major project.

When you speak of the “duty to consult and accommodate” on projects, the onus is always on the Crown to do that, not on individual companies, correct?

The Crown has the obligation. But the most proactive companies are the ones that are starting to embrace the UN declaration. And the most progressive companies are the ones that have an internal business strategy as it relates to Indigenous peoples. Does the company have a procurement strategy? Does it have an employment strategy? Does it have benefits sharing with Indigenous peoples? If not, how does that company operate in provincial or territorial boundaries? They get licences and permits. So I’ve asked for a simple policy change from the premiers and their governments: Before you issue a licence or permit to any industry operating in your territory to develop a natural resource, [require the company to] demonstrate that they’ve got a partnership and/or strategy in place to engage in a meaningful way with Indigenous peoples.

And if they don’t, don’t issue the licence or permit.Are there companies that have been more willing than others to engage you on these issues?

A number of companies. I think of Cameco—they’ve got over 50% Aboriginal employment. They’ve got First Nations reps on their board of directors. BHP Billiton in potash is another one. They’ve got a robust engagement strategy with Indigenous peoples. There are others.

The Supreme Court calls on the Crown to “consult and accommodate,” and you say First Nations communities must “consent” to projects before anything can happen. Is there a distance between those positions?

I maintain that, as Indigenous peoples, we have rights. And one of the most important rights is the right to self-determination. That means the right to say yes or to say no to projects. People ask: “Well, do Indigenous peoples have a veto over megaprojects?” And I’ve answered it this way: We wouldn’t even need to talk about that word if rights were recognized from the beginning and if there was a proper process in place. Before you try to build anything, build a respectful relationship first. How are they really partnering? And what about looking at equity ownership in some of these megaprojects? Indigenous peoples are business-minded people.

You often raise the issue of the economic gap—the “sixth-versus-63rd gap”—between Canadians and First Nations peoples. (1) What’s your strategy to address that gap?

That gap represents everything we keep talking about. Our policy document, Closing the Gap, is what we use to influence all the federal party platforms. Before the election, we took that document and met with the Liberals and the NDP and the Greens (2), and said, “You want First Nations support? We need to see these priorities in your party platforms.” Closing the Gap speaks to investments in education and training; housing and infrastructure; boil-water advisories; better health outcomes for Indigenous peoples; respect for the UN declaration, to move legislation to implement it; respect for honouring implementation of treaty rights according to the spirit and intent. All those things are in the Closing the Gap document. And so you see elements of it in the throne speeches, in some of the announcements Prime Minister Trudeau has made.

The government recently split the Aboriginal Affairs cabinet position into two. What’s your view of that?

It’s positive, because you now have the Crown and Indigenous peoples’ relationship on one side, and services and programs on the other. We have a treaty relationship with the Crown. The Indian Act of 1876 was a federal piece of legislation, which can be unilaterally changed in Ottawa at any time. Not a nation-to-nation relationship. Our relationship is with the Crown, not with one department. So now we have a very focused minister to deal with Crown relations. (3)

What’s keeping you up at night?

We have to think politically. In October 2019, there’s a federal election. How do you show results? Well, every year it’s through the federal budget. So, we saw $8.4 billion two budgets ago for First Nations people. When was the last time the federal government allocated $8.4 billion to Indigenous issues? The answer is never. Through our lobbying efforts, we influenced the prime minister and cabinet to do this, because we used that sixth-versus-63rd gap. And last year—what, $3.4 billion? I’m not jumping up and down, because we have to find more effective ways to get those resources out to the communities. We need to see legislation introduced on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and on Indigenous languages—the Revitalization Act. The prime minister committed to both.

Earlier, you brought up the idea of First Nations having equity ownership in major projects. Has that happened yet in Canada?

There have been dialogues. Over $600 billion in resource development projects could be added to Canada’s overall growth in GDP, and a lot of them are in First Nations ancestral lands. It just makes economic and business sense to create partnerships with Indigenous peoples. Chief Reg Bellerose is developing a potash mine in Muskowekwan, and he has an international trade agreement to supply potash to India. (4) We can do that on the international scene. The softwood lumber issue is a big issue. We have First Nations in northern B.C. needing access to supply that lumber to different markets.

Do equity negotiations have to happen with specific projects, or could it happen more broadly?

Well, project by project. But you would hope that there’s a mechanism. I’ve presented a number of times to John Manley’s group, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. The CEOs within that group handle billions of dollars in economic development and growth and trade. Where are the key strategic partnerships with Indigenous peoples? When I was FSIN chief, we had the Corporate Circle, where presidents, CEOs and chairs would meet with chiefs and leaders on a quarterly basis. Because there’s millions in contracts that go out. Where are the First Nations companies that can bid on those contracts? Maybe that’s something that can be looked at from a regional perspective: corporate circles, to have First Nations people engage with the private sector.

Some in the Indigenous community have questioned the effectiveness of the Assembly of First Nations as an organization. How do you respond?

I believe in the past three years the AFN has become more relevant. Our assemblies have become more relevant—the prime minister comes, the ministers come. So you have direct access to the decision makers. I think of the impact we’ve had in terms of shaping policy with our Closing the Gap document. You see things the Liberal leadership is saying, through the throne speech, and it’s reflected in some of their priorities. So can you say we’ve had an impact? I believe we have.

On July 1, everywhere I went, people were saying: “Why are we celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday, with all the oppression and colonization we’ve faced?” And I said: We’re going to participate, not so much to celebrate Canada’s birthday but to demonstrate that, in spite of the genocide from residential schools, in spite of that hurt and pain that we felt, that our parents and grandparents felt, we’re still here. (5) In spite of the control and the colonization of the Indian Act since 1876, not being allowed to leave the reserve without a permit till 1951, not having access to a lawyer till 1951, not being able to vote till 1962. We’re going to tell the world we’re still here. And we’re getting stronger.

We’ve been talking a lot about business and First Nations working together. You’re Cree. Is there a way in Cree to say, “Let’s make a deal”?

Wicihitotan. “Let’s work together.”


1. This refers to the UN Human Development Index that ranked Canada sixth and First Nations peoples 63rd on various health and economic measures.

2. The AFN tried to meet with the Conservatives, but the party refused.