Perry Bellegarde, the new National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was raised on the Little Black Bear First Nation in southern Saskatchewan, where he spent his childhood hunting for food, chopping wood for heat, and melting snow on the stove for water during the winter.
He was the first treaty Indian to obtain a degree in business administration from the University of Regina in 1985, and very quickly entered indigenous politics, eventually becoming chief of his own First Nation and chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations.
The Globe and Mail sat down with him this week after he was elected to lead Canada's largest indigenous organization for the next three and a half years – a period that could entail particularly tumultuous relations between the federal government and Canada's indigenous people.
You are often described as the candidate in this recent election that was most like your predecessor, Shawn Atleo, who resigned after being accused of collaborating too closely with the federal government. How do you avoid his pitfalls?
You have to make sure that direction is given, that the authority and mandate is there, and before things are moved ahead and completely binding on people, that there is the proper support. We will keep working towards consensus so there's not always a 51 per cent vote in favour of things. If we continue to work towards consensus and get things done, that's what I bring to the table.
Many First Nations people are questioning the relevance of the AFN. What is so important about it that it must continue to exist?
We are a strong national advocate for rights. We are strong national advocate as an organization that's united to bring about the change that's required. And the change we are talking about is a fundamental relationship change with Canada and Canadians as a whole.
There is a huge socio-economic gap that exists in this huge country. Our people are living in third-world conditions. So when I say "working together," we've got to work together [with governments and Canadians] to close that.
How can you work with a government that First Nations accuse of imposing policy and legislation upon them unilaterally without consultation?
That is the sad state of affairs that we have. People ask me about the relationship with this government and I say it's unnecessarily confrontational. It's unnecessarily confrontational in the sense that they spent $106-million on lawyers last year fighting inherent rights and treaty rights.
What if this government, and future governments, do not embrace your vision for improving the lives of the First Nations people?
I say there are three things that have to happen. We need a legal strategy, a political strategy, and an on-the-ground activist strategy. Political activism. I don't call it civil disobedience or protest. It's political activism. And the three things have to work in tandem.
If governments aren't listening, if governments are going to continue with unilateral legislation that impacts in a negative way on our inherent treaty rights and jurisdiction as indigenous peoples … and if the political process is not working, then we look at the legal fight.
And if the legal fight is not working, then we have to look at harnessing the power of our youth, harnessing the power of our men and women who are willing to march, who are willing to stand up.
The Assembly of First Nations can be a tool and a vehicle and a mechanism to harness all of that.
You have talked a lot about resource revenues. Are natural resources your lever or your hammer in dealing with the federal government?
Yes, yes and yes.
Are you saying that, if they are not willing to deal fairly, then you won't allow access to the resources on your traditional lands?
Exactly. Governments want economic certainty. There is $650-billion in potential resource development projects in Canada. Government wants to export their resources to foreign markets, it's clear.
And what we are saying is, look, if you want to continue to do that, and to create economic certainty, you need to involve indigenous peoples every step of the way.
How soon do you want to sit down with Prime Minister Stephen Harper?
As soon as possible.
I am going to push for him to, at least once a year, come and give a state of nation address to the First Nations chiefs in assembly and [to explain] how our rights fit into the government-of-the-day's agenda. That's not a difficult thing to do.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
NEW PROPOSALS FOR EDUCATION
Canada's First Nations have agreed to present the federal Conservative government with their own proposals to improve the quality of education on reserves, where nearly 60 per cent of students across Canada drop out before graduation.
Chiefs attending an Assembly of First Nations meeting in Winnipeg endorsed a resolution Thursday that calls on the government to scrap the so-called First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, and to collaborate with them on drafting a new one based on their own framework.
The government's proposed legislation, which was publicly supported by former AFN national chief Shawn Atleo and ultimately led to his resignation, has been on hold since it was widely panned by native leaders last spring.
It would provide $1.9-billion over multiple years to enhance on-reserve teaching and schools. But chiefs say it would take away their authority over education while leaving them with all the responsibility for making sure it was properly delivered.
And they say the money offered is too little and would come too late.
The proposal approved by the chiefs calls for a small "co-drafting team" to develop a new law to address the funding issue and create "a mutually agreed-upon process to identify accountability mechanisms." It also lays out specific timetables that would see the new law written by March.
David McDougall, the Chief of the St. Theresa Point First Nation who is also a teacher, seconded the resolution to adopt the package of education proposals.
A school was recently built on his fly-in reserve in northern Manitoba, he said.
"However, by the time we finished the school, we were already about four classrooms short," Mr. McDougall said. That type of problem has to be addressed quickly, he said.
But, when asked if it would work with the First Nations on their new proposal, the government did not give a direct reply.
JOINING THE ROUND TABLE ON ABORIGINAL WOMEN AND GIRLS
Federal politicians must be at the table when premiers meet early in the new year to discuss the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, native leaders say.
Chiefs attending a meeting of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) approved two resolutions relating to the high number of deaths and disappearances.
One calls on the federal government to "make an official announcement of participation" in a round table being planned for late February that provincial premiers and territorial leaders have agreed to attend. It also asks Ottawa to provide resources to help the AFN's women's council prepare for that meeting.
The second resolution recognizes that any round table or national inquiry – the latter has been rebuffed by the Conservative government – must hear from the families of the victims, and also that a one-day round table is not sufficient to address the problem. More than 1,180 indigenous women and girls were killed or went missing in Canada between 1980 and 2012, according to a recent RCMP report. Just this week, the body of 17-year-old Brandy Vittrekwa was found on a walking trail in Whitehorse.
Fern Wapioke, chief of the Iskatewizaagegan No. 39 Independent First Nation in Northern Ontario, moved the resolution calling for the federal government to participate in the round table. All native people have been touched by violence against women, Ms. Wapioke said. "We have aunts, we have sisters, mothers that are affected."
It's key she said, to get the people to the round table who need to be there. "Government having those discussions, the families having those discussions, being able to just have that conversation together, is really needed."
When asked if the government would be at the round table, Andrew McGrath, spokesman for Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch, said in an e-mail that Ms. Leitch has met with victims' families "and she heard time and time again that now is the time for action, not more studies, and not an inquiry."