FSIN chief reflects on the COVID-19 pandemic, unmarked graves and other events of 2021

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron said 2021 has been a year like no other as First Nations people cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, the trauma of unmarked grave revelations and other issues.

Chief Bobby Cameron's been busy and he also won a third term in office

COVID-19 and the unmarked grave revelations required a tremendous amount of energy and emotion this year, but FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron said ongoing issues such as housing and education also require attention. (CBC)

It's been a year like no other as First Nations people cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, continuing unmarked grave revelations and other issues, said Bobby Cameron, chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations.

Cameron, who handily won a third term as FSIN chief in October, said these topics will also dominate 2022, but that it's essential to keep focused on the everyday needs of First Nations communities such as housing and education.

In an interview with the CBC's Jason Warick, Cameron reflected on the past 12 months and looked ahead to the coming year.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Question: What have you been doing this holiday season? 

Answer: Well, like most people, trying to stay home as much as possible. Of course, we had a lot of snow, so snow shovelling. And we have a poodle-Labrador-Shih Tzu, named Poncho, that gave birth to six pups, so we're busy with them. They are very cute pups. 

Question: What are a few things that stand out for you in the past year?

Answer: Well, we can start with the COVID pandemic and all the mental wellness, the safety initiatives, getting vaccinated, all of these things have been a top priority for our federation. We have to deal with it, try to live with it and, ultimately, you know, get back to normal lives. We've been supporting First Nations and tribal councils with food, food security, vaccinations, personal protection equipment, perimeter security. The list goes on and on.

FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron was re-elected to a third term in 2021. (Matthew Garand/CBC)

Question: The announcement of hundreds of unmarked graves, first at Tk'emlups te Secwepemc Nation and then here in Saskatchewan at Cowessess First Nation and other sites, captured the attention of the world. How do you feel about what's happened since then?

Answer: The every child matters movement really awakened the eyes of the world and all governments. But this is nothing new to us. All those survivors and descendants have known for many, many decades of the torture, abuse and death they endured and witnessed. These stories are not told to us. And now, with the awakening of this, every child matters and the bodies being found in the ground, clearly it's an indication for everybody to wake up and really, really work with First Nations. What do we do now together? And what are we going to do in the future? You know, I've travelled to many of the residential school sites — Lebret, Muskowekwan, Gordon's, Delmas Onion Lake, Battlefords — just to name a few.

Question: What are some of the things that still need to happen on this front?

Answer: We've consistently said those records belong to us. It's a part of history that can never be erased. And true compensation. And there's the pope apology, whether it happens or not … And some of the individuals who committed these horrendous acts of crime and death are still living. Those individuals need to be brought to justice. They cannot get away with what they've done.

Ground penetrating radar was used to help the Cowessess First Nation locate hundreds of unmarked gravesites this year. (Submitted by Cowessess First Nation)

Question: A lot has happened this year, but you've said the focus must also remain on other issues facing First Nations communities, matters that people in Saskatoon or towns take for granted, from infrastructure to school funding and housing. Can you elaborate on that?

Answer: We urgently need to implement the treaty right to shelter, building more houses on our First Nations, along with infrastructure. There is no other way than to build more houses on reserves. And to provide clean, safe drinking water within our First Nations is an absolute must.

Question: How are you feeling in general heading into 2022? 

Answer: We need to do all we can to really improve the lives of our First Nation people to really remind everybody that our inherent and treaty rights are still alive and we're thriving.

Question: Is there anything else you want to add? 

Answer: Stay home, stay safe. And to all the people out there who are unvaccinated: If you don't want to get vaccinated for yourself, then get vaccinated to protect your families.