A First Nations scholar's journey from a northern Alberta reserve to Oxford — and back again

Billy-Ray Belcourt’s journey from Driftpile Cree Nation to completing his master's degree in women’s studies at the University of Oxford sounds a bit like a Cinderella story — and in some ways, it was.

Billy-Ray Belcourt, a 2016 Rhodes scholar, chose to return home to continue his studies

Billy-Ray Belcourt is back in Edmonton to continue his studies where his support network is. (Gabriella Gut/Supplied)

Billy-Ray Belcourt's journey from Driftpile Cree Nation to completing his master's degree in women's studies at the University of Oxford sounds a bit like a Cinderella story — and in some ways, it was.

Raised by his grandmother on the northern Alberta reserve, Belcourt was the first-ever First Nations Rhodes scholar, a prestigious scholarship for students to attend the world-renowned school.

But after finishing his degree at Oxford, he was looking for his next challenge. He applied and was accepted into four schools: University of California, Berkeley; University of Toronto; Oxford and the University of Alberta.

In the end, he chose to come back home to Alberta.

"I knew that I had this unwavering and fierce system of support here in Edmonton," Belcourt told CBC's Radio Active Wednesday.

During his time at Oxford, Belcourt studied some of the now iconic images that came out of Indigenous protests in 2016. In 2017, he wrote his book, This Wound is a World, which was named one of CBC Books' best poetry collections of 2017.

Belcourt is also the author of the poetry collection This Wound Is A World. (Frontenac House)

He also spoke to other Rhodes scholars about Indigenous issues in Canada. He was the one person at the university who championed Canadian First Nations issues, he said. 

It made him wonder, if he decided to continue education at Oxford, whether he wanted to be that "lone wolf," he added.

Belcourt was that person during his time there, but felt he could have more of an impact back home through his studies and outreach work. "[At Oxford], it sometimes can feel like you're lost in a sea of many fish," he said.

But it was also the support system he has here in Edmonton that brought him back. "It takes a village to get a PhD and I knew that I had a village here," he said.

Billy-Ray Belcourt talks about why he returned to the University of Alberta, despite having acceptance letters from three other prestigious institutions. 7:26

He said the University of Alberta has always done what it could to help him succeed. "It really does make a profound difference to have culturally specific supports in place for Indigenous students," Belcourt said.

When he was first named a Rhodes scholar, Belcourt said he wanted to be a role model for other First Nations kids. He felt like he did that as soon as he was chosen for the prestigious scholarship.

"It allowed First Nations students in particular to see people like them winning something like this," he said. "That does open our horizon of possibility."

But it's still an ongoing process for Belcourt. As the first First Nations Rhodes scholar, he knows being a role model comes with the territory of being a first-ever anything.

With his support network behind him, Belcourt will continue to embrace that role. "We can achieve these monumental things despite histories of political violence and despite the barriers in our communities."