Perry Bellegarde, new AFN chief, has known triumphs and disappointment

The new National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations comes to the job with a list of accomplishments and unfulfilled dreams from his days as a First Nations leader in Saskatchewan.

Assembly of First Nations' new chief emphasizes treaty rights and dialogue, says commentator

Perry Bellegarde is the new national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. He comes from his current post as a third-term chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. (CBC)

Perry Bellegarde, the new national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, comes to the job with a list of accomplishments and unfulfilled dreams from his days as a First Nations leader in Saskatchewan.

People familiar with Bellegarde are accustomed to hearing him utter the words "treaty rights" and "inherent rights," which have been a repeated theme throughout his political career.

"Perry was one of the fortunate young leaders of our day to have had personal knowledge and transfer of the information of treaty from the grandchildren of the original signatories of Treaty 4," said Mervin Brass, publisher and editor of Treaty 4 News.

Bellegarde also comes to his new job at the AFN directly from his current post as a third-term chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN). (He served twice, initially from 1998-2003, recapturing the post in 2012.)

Like the AFN, the FSIN is struggling to remain a potent and relevant political force, particularly in an era of funding cutbacks, a federal government often at odds with some First Nations on issues such as financial transparency, educational funding, and land rights.

Defeated in 2003 over FSIN's direction

He was voted out as FSIN chief in 2003, after which his successful challenger Alphonse Bird shifted focus onto practical issues such as inadequate housing and water. Bellegarde had been emphasizing the FSIN's role in political advocacy and policy research and analysis. His approach had generated hefty legal bills in battles with Ottawa, including a legal challenge to the controversial First Nations Governance Act.

Still, Brass counts Bellegarde as a leader who likes to "create dialogue with governments."

During his time with the Touchwood-File Hills-Qu'Appelle Tribal Council, Bellegarde worked to restore the original Treaty 4 grounds to reserve status in the town of Fort Qu'Appelle.

In his first two terms as FSIN chief, Bellegarde led the fight to win compensation for First Nation veterans and their spouses who were denied benefits they were entitled to after returning from military service.

Signed gaming agreement with province

Bellegarde also signed a 25-year gaming agreement with the province of Saskatchewan. It was no small accomplishment, coming less than two years after the firing of the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority's chief executive officer Edward (Dutch) Lerat over a financial scandal.

However, the province's imposition of provincial sales tax on off-reserve status First Nation people also happened under Bellegarde's watch. He said the provincial government acted without consulting with Saskatchewan First Nations, and certainly without their consent. 

"That was something that has dogged Perry's leadership since then," Brass said.

Likewise, Bellegarde has not yet achieved his goal of resource revenue-sharing with the province.

Missing and murdered aboriginal women on agenda

Looking ahead, Brass said the outcome of the next federal election could determine Bellegarde's success or failure as national chief.

"If it's the same government, the Harper government, well we've seen how the prime minister's relationship with First Nations has unfolded in the past several years," Brass said.

At the same time, Brass expects Bellegarde will be listening to grassroots groups such as Idle No More.

Based on the issues Bellegarde campaigned on, Brass expects one of his first orders of business will be getting an inquiry established into missing and murdered aboriginal women.


  • An earlier version of this story failed to provide specific examples of how the federal government is at odds with some First Nations on certain issues.
    Dec 12, 2014 12:54 PM CT