As It Happens

For first time, First Nations student from Canada named Rhodes Scholar

Billy-Ray Belcourt is one of three University of Alberta students to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, and he's the first First Nations student from Canada to be awarded the prize.
Billy-Ray Belcourt was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. He's the first First Nations student from Canada to become a Rhodes Scholar. (CBC)
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This year, for the first time, a First Nations student in Canada has been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. His name is Billy-Ray Belcourt, and he's a student at the University of Alberta.

The Rhodes is one of the oldest and most prestigious scholarships, awarded to "young women and men of outstanding intellect, character, leadership, and commitment to service" throughout the world. Each year, 11 Canadians are selected.

Next year, Belcourt will head to Oxford University to begin his graduate studies, with all of his school fees paid.      

Belcourt spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off. The following is an excerpt of their conversation.

Carol Off: Billy-Ray, first of all congratulations. What went through your mind when you heard that you were a Rhodes Scholar?

Bill-Ray Belcourt: I guess probably "bewildered" is the best way to capture it. I was at once relieved, excited, and also in shock and disbelief. All those emotions kind of culminated into general pride in myself, in my community, in my family.

 I had to work hard to maintain a 4.0 G.P.A., and to  fulfill  all my leadership responsibilities. But also indigenous peoples, as we know, because of a history of colonialism, face barriers to education. And so I had to fight in that sense as well.- Billy-Ray Belcourt

CO: Why were you shocked? Did you think it was unlikely that you would be getting this scholarship?

BRB: Well, no, in actuality after the two events that make up the selection process in Regina, I felt confident that I had done the best job, that I could, that I had made a good impression on the selection committee. So I was actually more anxious because I felt that it was within arm's reach. But then at the same time there's always that pestering sense that you might not get it or that you won't get it. So I did have conflicting thoughts.

CO: You're pretty close to your grandmother. How did she respond?

BRB: Yeah, she was the first person I phoned, and as soon as I heard her voice, to be honest, I started crying. She sounded a bit disappointed because I think she might have signaled my tears as being rejected, but then as soon as I told her I got it she was super excited. Generally I'm a very emotional person. Like T.V. things make me cry. But after all that I've invested in applying for the Rhodes Scholarship – time, money – it felt like tears were the relevant response. My grandma and I have always been close with each other. She had a huge role in my upbringing and we talk to each other on the phone every week, so that's the kind of bond we share.

CO: How difficult was it to get where we are, to get to this place?

BRB: I think regardless of identity or their history, it's not easy to be a university student and to balance extra-curriculars and stay connected to your family and your friends. And so I had to work hard to maintain a 4.0 G.P.A., and to fulfill all my leadership responsibilities. But also indigenous peoples, as we know, because of a history of colonialism, face barriers to education. And so I had to fight in that sense as well.

CO: What are you going to study? What is the project that you are taking to Oxford?

BRB: Right now I'm deciding between three programs -- I can take two -- medical anthropology, visual anthropology, and women's studies. Regardless of program, I will be writing my thesis on indigenous peoples. If I do enter into medical anthropology, I want to study the social, political and historical conditions that give rise to disparities on First Nations communities, particularly disparate and oftentimes devastatingly high infection rates of HIV amongst First Nations people on reserves. 

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