Despite challenges, outgoing AFN Chief Perry Bellegarde looks forward to 'shared future'

As Perry Bellegarde prepares to leaves his post as head of the Assembly of First Nations after seven years, he says while progress has been made for Indigenous people in Canada, changes are still needed to fix systemic racism.

Bellegarde says it will take many more years for Indigenous people to reach parity

Understanding hard truths of history key to shared future, says outgoing AFN chief

3 months ago
Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton that Canadians need to talk about the past and embrace reconciliation in order to create a future that is respectful of Indigenous history. 8:36

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde says Canada has made significant progress in the past seven years on its relationship with Indigenous people, but he warns there is still much work to do as he prepares to step down next month.

First elected in 2014, Bellegarde's tenure has seen rapid — but, he says, insufficient — change in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, as well as steps forward in federal legislation.

He points to the creation of a national day of truth and reconciliation, recognition of treaty rights in citizenship oaths and development on child welfare and language rights as signs of progress.

The day before Canada marks National Indigenous Peoples Day on Monday, Bellegarde spoke with CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton in an interview that aired on Rosemary Barton Live.

"We've moved the yardsticks, but progress doesn't mean parity. We still have to keep investing in housing and water and infrastructure and education and health care so that gap keeps closing," he said.

"It's only been seven years. It's going to take five, 10, 15, 20 years for that gap to eventually close because progress does not mean parity. And we've got to get to the same starting line."

Perry Bellegarde, shown in 2014 in Winnipeg, when he was first elected national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. (Jillian Taylor/CBC)

Bellegarde spoke with Barton just days after Bill C-15, legislation to align Canadian law with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), passed in the Senate. The bill is now poised for royal assent.

The AFN national chief noted that C-15 includes a provision to implement steps to eliminate racism and discrimination, saying the legislation is "another arrow in our quiver" to put pressure on the government to make policy change.

Bellegarde pointed to the need for "transformational change" in the justice and health-care systems, among other areas.

"If there's systemic racism and discrimination, you need systemic change," he said.

'Canadians are waking up'

Despite persistent inequities experienced by Indigenous people, Bellegarde has struck an optimistic tone about the future. He notes that there has been a major shift in the attitude of Canadians, saying a decade ago, concerns about missing and murdered Indigenous women were dismissed or ignored.

"We weren't talking about the lack of access to potable water. We weren't talking about the high youth suicide crisis. Canadians are getting it. And that's a real powerful thing. Canada is moving and embracing reconciliation at the time for change," he said.

Canadians are becoming more aware of the history and legacy of the residential school system, and the preliminary findings of children buried at the site of a Kamloops, B.C., residential school have played a major role in increasing awareness, Bellegarde said.

"Because of colonization and oppression, you see the genocide and now there's a waking up. Canadians are waking up, governments are waking up."

Bellegarde speaks during an announcement about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in Ottawa on Dec. 3, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The key to moving forward is a clear-eyed view of the past — "the good things, the bad things, the ugly things" — and a commitment to mutual respect, Bellegarde said.

"We need to know we have a shared history, and it's not always bright and light around that shared history. We have to tell the truth and embrace that truth as hard as it is, because more importantly, now we have a shared future."

Part of that effort is a recognition that the residential school system was a genocide against Indigenous people, that Indigenous people are suffering intergenerational trouble and that challenges remain on issues such as child welfare, Bellegarde said.

As he prepares to step down, with a new national chief to be elected July 7, Bellegarde said he's grateful for the opportunity to serve his people.

"Forever in my head, mind, heart and spirit, I'll be a public servant and helper of the people. And it is time to take a rest and reset now, and we'll see what the next road turns up."

You can watch full episodes of Rosemary Barton Live on CBC Gem, the CBC's streaming service.

With files from Rosemary Barton and Tyler Buist