Nearly seven years ago, when Perry Bellegarde took on the top job at the Assembly of First Nations, one of his major missions was getting Indigenous people out to vote in a looming federal election in Canada.
“Closing the gap” was the rallying cry in the lead-up to the campaign of 2015, which put Justin Trudeau and his Liberals in power. Indigenous people would only see a difference in their lives, Bellegarde and the AFN argued, if they made a difference at the ballot box in this election. Nonparticipation in Canada’s democracy — too often the practice for Indigenous people — kept them as outsiders in the nation.
The results were impressive. On-reserve voting shot up from around 48 per cent in 2011 to more than 61 per cent in 2015. Some reserves ran out of ballots. Bellegarde says that Indigenous people alone helped “flip” more than 20 ridings across the country that year.
Thanks in part to those efforts, Bellegarde’s years as AFN chief have run roughly parallel with those of Trudeau; the prime minister who has made Indigenous issues a bigger priority than any of his predecessors.
Sitting in his soon-to-vacated office in Ottawa this past week, with time ticking down to the end of his long reign as AFN national chief, Bellegarde smiles at the memory of that first year after he was elected chief in December 2014.
It’s a long way from there to the here and now, when Bellegarde is preoccupied with almost the opposite problem. In 2015, his prime concern was getting Indigenous people engaged in politics and democracy. In 2021, it’s the non-Indigenous population of Canada that he wants to get mobilized, as he and other leaders wonder how to seize a moment gripping the nation. “What’s changed is that Canadians now have opened their eyes,” Bellegarde says, reflecting on the past month of discovery — or rediscovery — of the truth about residential schools and the hundreds buried in unmarked graves around the country.
“There’s this discourse in Canada, like people are willing to open their eyes now and have a tough conversation and see the truth in history.”
But here is the question for Bellegarde — what exactly are non-Indigenous people being mobilized to do? Seven years ago, voting was a tangible thing he could ask people to do to close that famous gap; something real, visible and measurable on election day.
If it is true that non-Indigenous Canadians are in a mood to do something, anything to reckon with the brutal history of residential schools, what action is Bellegarde urging them to take?
“This is what I tell you to do,” he says. “Read the (Truth and Reconciliation) Commission’s report and get familiarized with the 94 calls to action. … Lobby! Help lobby and advocate to your member of Parliament to end the boil-water advisories, help lobby to the Pope to come to Canada, to apologize for the role of the Catholic Church. Lobby to do the research and investigation into the missing children and all the residential school sites.”
Politely, tactfully, I ask: is that it? We talk about how this long last year of the pandemic has also been an exercise in mobilization of individuals. Fighting COVID was literally in people’s own hands, following public health measures, from wearing a mask to accepting huge limits on work and social life.
If Canada is in a moment of reconciliation, it seems that somehow there should be an equivalent call for action to citizens on individual, hands-on terms. Is it enough to ask them to lobby their governments and politicians to do something?
Bellegarde considers the question. Yes, he says, this can work on an individual level.
“Learn about First Nations’ culture, language, and dance, First Nations foods. You know, integration can work both ways. And so that’s something that individual people can do.”
The chief has just returned from his home province of Saskatchewan and a Sun Dance ceremony there and his conversation is laced with the importance of connections between all of creation: between land and “two-legged” creatures (that’s we humans;) between the Earth and the stars; between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
His talk of unity, ironically, comes just as the AFN is closing in on the last days of the election to choose his successor, which naturally is going to divide an organization that is notoriously fractious. Bellegarde’s main advice to his successor, whomever that turns out to be among the seven candidates, is simple. “AFN has to be united,” he says.
When I ask Bellegarde what his main job has been — managing the AFN or representing it to others, he doesn’t hesitate. Serving as a spokesman, he says, as the voice of the Indigenous community is clearly the priority for anyone who wants to lead this organization that says it speaks for more than 900,000 people living in 634 First Nation communities.
“It has to be relevant. People need to see the relevancy of the AFN in order for it to be effective. We’re an advocacy organization and you advocate for policy and legislative change. And the most important thing you influence is that federal budgeting cycle every year.”
It’s why he also smiles when presented with the familiar criticism — not unique to him, either — that this AFN chief got too close to the federal government, whose time in office has run in parallel to his own. Bellegarde has heard that before; so did the AFN chiefs who came before him.
“You have to be able to communicate and collaborate and have access to the policy, legislative decision makers,” he says. “If you can’t do that, what good are you as a national team? How effective are you as national chief?”
He also stresses that he is on good terms with all the federal political party leaders; not just Trudeau or his ministers. On the coffee table in front of him is a new pamphlet: an updated version of the “Closing the Gap” manifesto of 2015, which he’s been pressing into the hands of politicos of all stripes since 2019. It’s called “Honouring Promises” and runs to 16 pages of demands that the AFN wants to see in any party’s election platform.
The whole debate around Canada Day and whether to celebrate it was not one on which Bellegarde wanted to take a side — not because it divided the political world, but because it was one on which chiefs of the AFN were not united either. It reminds him a bit of the debate around whether to vote in 2015. Some Indigenous people argued that elections — such as the one that may come again soon in Canada — have nothing to do with their own nations and democracy within them. None of their business — part of the non-Indigenous Canada so problematic through their history.
Bellegarde has an easy answer for that. “I embrace dual citizenship,” he says.
As he walks around the office that will soon belong to a new chief, he points out the photographs he will soon be taking down. There he is in Paris in late 2015, posing with Barack Obama while Trudeau takes a photo. They were all there for the talks that led to the Paris agreement on climate change Catherine McKenna, the minister who resigned this week and boasted that Paris agreement as one of her earliest victories, is in the shot too, as a newly sworn-in environment minister. In another photo on the AFN’s office wall, Bellegarde is posing with former finance minister Bill Morneau, focus of much of his lobbying efforts in the early years of the Trudeau government.
He spoke to McKenna as she was resigning this week; both of them focused on turning a page. Not coincidentally, they both said they intend to spend the summer relaxing and considering what to do next. They are, in their own ways, snapshots themselves of an earlier era of Trudeau government.
I ask Bellegarde how he’s changed since 2015. He has to think, then says: “I’ve learned to be more patient.”