Canada ranks sixth in the world on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, but if the same criteria was applied to Canada’s Indigenous people, it would drop to 63. It was this gap in quality of life between First Nations and other families in Canada that led Chief Perry Bellegarde to dedicate his life to championing the rights and well-being of First Nations.
For 35 years, Perry has been a prolific leader in Indigenous politics. In 2014, he was elected as the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), a position he held for seven years representing 900,000 Indigenous people in Canada.
Under his leadership, the AFN went through a period of profound transformation in public awareness of First Nations concerns and priorities.
In an interview with Maclean’s magazine, Perry said, “Think back seven to 10 years ago, the discourse in Canada about First Nations issues wasn’t there. The opportunities for investments and growth weren’t there. Ten years ago, we didn’t have an Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Nobody was talking about any of these Indigenous concerns in Canada, from MMIW to 40,000 children in foster care. So, we moved things.”
Perry led significant legislation through parliament, including Bill C-5, which designates a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation; Bill C-8, which amended the citizenship oath to include a promise to respect Aboriginal and treaty rights; and Bill C-15, which secured a legal commitment to the national implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Other critical accomplishments included the passage of Canada’s first national legislation recognizing and protecting Indigenous languages, and much needed changes to how government services in First Nations communities are funded.
“But progress doesn’t mean parity,” Perry told Maclean’s. It’s going to take more than 3-5 years to see real change, he said, but this past decade did see important advances that shifted public opinion. This included The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report in 2015, the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Women and Girls with its 203 calls to justice, Prime Minister Trudeau’s 2017 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, and, more recently, the thousands of children found buried in unmarked graves at Indian Residential Schools across Canada.
“Canadians are waking up and getting it, that this is just not acceptable,” Perry told Maclean’s. “And as a First Nations leader, you need that support. You need Canadians pushing their members of Parliament, demanding that action be done.”
Stepping down as National Chief in 2021, Perry hopes his successor will continue to maintain this momentum. On his to-do list, he told Maclean’s, would be number 58 on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call to action, which demands an apology from the Pope for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools, as well as the use of restorative justice to reduce the over-representation of First Nations in Canadian prisons, and to ensure continued funding from the government so that this fragile progress isn’t reversed.
Today, as an in-demand keynote speaker, Perry inspires audiences by drawing from his 35 years of experience leading Canadians and First Nations into a united future. He describes himself as an oskâpêwis, a Cree word meaning “helper”, and believes this understanding of the role and responsibilities of a leader applies to many walks of life. He also shares his passionate belief that at the heart of the original treaty relationship sits a vision of peace and friendship that is the key to building a better and brighter future for Canada.
Interested in learning more about Perry and what he can bring to your next event? Email us at [email protected].