The new national chief of the organization that is the voice for Canada's First Nations says he will improve the lot of his people by insisting that they are permitted to share in the wealth from resources harvested on their traditional lands.
Perry Bellegarde, a 52-year-old veteran of indigenous politics who was the chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, won on the first ballot Wednesday in a vote by chiefs to replace Shawn Atleo as head of the Assembly of First Nations. He is a pragmatist and a moderate who promises to be a catalyst for change.
But he warned governments and industry in his first speech as head of the AFN that the social problems plaguing First Nations peoples will be addressed by asserting their rights to the riches that lie beneath the territories of their forebears.
"To Canada we say, for too long have we been dispossessed of our homelands and the wealth of our rightful inheritance," Mr. Bellegarde told the hundreds of chiefs and other native people who travelled to Winnipeg for the three-day leadership convention.
"Canada will no longer develop pipelines, no longer develop transmission lines or any infrastructure on our lands as business as usual," he said. "First Nations peoples will oppose any development which deprives our children of the legacy of our ancestors. We will no longer accept poverty and hopelessness while resource companies and governments grow fat off our lands."
After taking the oath of office, Mr. Bellegarde was also presented with a ceremonial talking stick by British Columbia First Nations that will require him to tell the stories of murdered and missing aboriginal women and girls as he goes about his work. First Nations have been calling for a national inquiry to examine the deaths and disappearances but have been repeatedly rebuffed by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Mr. Bellegarde took 63 per cent of the votes to easily beat his two rivals, Ghislain Picard and Leon Jourdain.
The Saskatchewan chief was widely regarded as the most moderate of the three candidates and the one most likely to maintain lines of communication with government as First Nations chafe at legislation they say has been imposed upon them unilaterally by Ottawa.
Mr. Picard, an Innu who represents Quebec and Labrador on the AFN executive, told the chiefs that, despite his defeat, he remains committed "to challenging any government that will try to find a way to deny our aboriginal and treaty rights."
Mr. Jourdain was more blunt. As a result of the vote, he said, the children and grandchildren of today's First Nations people "will continue down the status quo of a bloody road laid out for us by a foreign government."
Mr. Bellegarde says his overarching goal is to improve the quality of life for his native people. He frequently points to the UN Human Development Index that he says lists Canada in sixth place and its aboriginal peoples in 63rd.
Blaine Favel, the president of One Earth Oil and Gas and a former chief of the Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan who is chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan, has known Mr. Bellegarde since they were adopted by the same elders when they were young chiefs.
Under Mr. Bellegarde, "one of the things that you are going to see is that resources, whether it's energy or the Ring of Fire, requires First Nations support and First Nations involvement," Mr. Favel said. "And governments need it to grow the economy, the country needs it to grow the economy and Perry is very much attuned to what's happening in that space and the leverage that he brings to the table."
It was not by accident that Mr. Bellegarde chose to be introduced to the leadership convention by Chief Roger William, the man behind the Tsilhqot'in decision earlier this year in which the Supreme Court ruled that indigenous peoples have the exclusive right to use their unceded traditional territories, and the right to benefit from the resources on those lands.
"If our lands and resources are to be developed, it will be done only with our fair share of the royalties. It will be done on our terms and our timelines," Mr. Bellegarde told the assembly. "Canada is Indian land."