Status Indians to disappear in 50 years unless First Nations move beyond Indian Act: Perry Bellegarde

Perry Bellegarde, who announced his campaign Monday to again lead the Assembly of First Nations, says First Nations need to take control of their citizenship laws and move beyond the Indian Act.

Incumbent AFN National Chief launches re-election campaign

Incumbent Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde launched his re-election campaign on Monday. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

There won't be any status Indians left in Canada within the next 50 years unless First Nations move beyond the Indian Act, according to incumbent Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde.

Bellegarde, who announced his campaign Monday to again lead the largest First Nations organization in the country, said First Nations need to take control of their citizenship laws to avoid this future.

"We have to assert our laws, our own jurisdiction and move beyond the Indian Act, that is the key for us as FN people," said Bellegarde.

Despite several changes to the Indian Act over the years driven by court rulings to deal with the discrimination in the law— in the past the Indian Act took away status from women who married non-status men — Bellegarde said the threat remains. The Indian Act still contains different categories for status that can limit a woman's ability to pass on her status to successive generations, he said.

"You are not passing on status to your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren," said Bellegarde.

"That is why I say we have to exert our own citizenship laws and move beyond the Indian Act."

Controversial pathway

Ottawa has pledged to provide a new pathway beyond the Indian Act through its promised Indigenous rights recognition framework which is expected to allow First Nations to construct their own forms of government outside of the Indian Act band council system.

The planned framework, which Ottawa hopes to table next fall and pass before next year's federal election, was recently criticized in a report by the Yellowhead Institute think tank.

The report, written by scholars Hayden King and Shiri Pasternak, said the promised bill would coax First Nations into a "narrow model" of self-government that would suppress Indigenous self-determination.

The framework has also been criticized along the same lines by one of Bellegarde's opponents in the national chief race, Russ Diabo, a Mohawk policy analyst.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on after receiving an Assembly of First Nations jacket as a gift from Perry Bellegarde, left, this past May. Trudeau has spoken at the AFN three times. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Bellegarde said the framework is still in the works so it is impossible to criticize.

"It's not done yet, so how can you assess something without having seen it?" said Bellegarde.

Bellegarde is expected to face four challengers in the race for national chief which ends this July with a vote in Vancouver. The final number of Bellegarde's challengers won't be known until after June 19, the deadline to submit nominations.

Bellegarde touts accomplishments 

The former chief of Little Black Bear First Nation in Saskatchewan enters the race touting $17 billion over seven years in new federal funding for First Nations along with Ottawa's promise to table a bill to protect Indigenous languages.

Ottawa is also reworking its fiscal relationship with First Nations, now allowing bands to carry over some funds from one fiscal year to the other and establishing 10-year block funding for more than 100 First Nations, said Bellegarde.

Ottawa also supported NDP MP Romeo Saganash's private member's bill to harmonize Canada's laws with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The bill is now before the Senate.

Bellegarde said there are still 80,000 new homes needed on reserves and he wants to keep the pressure on Ottawa to recognize First Nations' inherent right to self-government.

"We still have to build on that momentum," he said.

The AFN vote in Vancouver will take place against the backdrop of heated debate over the Trans Mountain pipeline, which Ottawa bought from Kinder Morgan.

Bellegarde said he cannot take a position one way or another on the pipeline because different First Nations leaders in B.C. are on opposite sides of the argument and the AFN needs to represent all the views of its membership.

"As the AFN, as an advocate organization and as national chief, I have always been constant in my position that I support the right to self-determination, which is the right to say yes and the right to say no," said Bellegarde.

"A lot of First Nation people are divided as are the provinces, as are the premiers. Canadians are divided on this issue."


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's investigative unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him