By Perry Bellegarde
Serving our First Nations as a leader is my life’s work. I believe that the experience I’ve gained over the past two decades in positions of increasing responsibility has prepared me to become the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
So why am I seeking the office of national chief of the Assembly of First Nations? The obvious answer is to make a difference through positive changes in the lives of First Nations people. But one statistic brings into focus the true reason. The United Nations quality of life indicators show that Canada is eighth in terms of quality of life, but First Nations are 63rd.
First Nations people were never meant to be poor. We were always intended to share in the vast resources of our homeland, one of the richest countries in the world. However, we are perceived to be a burden on the taxpayers. This perception exists because Canada has failed to acknowledge the fact that the high quality of life enjoyed by Canadians has been, for the most part, derived from our natural resource wealth. If First Nations are to achieve self-determination, resource revenue sharing is an imperative—and our right.
But while we have rights, we also have responsibilities that were passed down to us by our ancestors, the responsibilities of territorial stewardship. It is critical that we assume our role as leaders in environmental knowledge and partner with the world’s leaders in mitigating the climate change crisis. This is a challenge like none other. And it must be met with determination, innovation, and viable solutions. We must begin by creating public awareness among and on First Nations regarding the merits of adopting the principles of environmental stewardship and protectionism. Then we must create formal resource revenue sharing agreements that reflect these principles.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples stipulates that First Nations people have the right to demand free, prior, and informed consent from governments and industry when resource developments are proposed or undertaken. As First Nations people, we must recognize that our duty goes far beyond the “duty to consult”; it is our duty to ensure that Mother Earth is delivered safely into the hands of future generations.
Then there is the issue of utilizing the human resources that exist within First Nations communities. It is my intention as national chief to develop an organization that will bring together the knowledge and expertise of the best and brightest minds amongst First Nations people. We will bring them together and listen to their thinking and innovative strategies for solving our most critical issues. For example, we will bring together economic architects committed to using their expertise in service of an inspired vision for the economic viability of First Nations people.
Within the First Nations population, the youth population is the largest and fastest growing segment. According to the 2006 census, aboriginal youth aged 24 and under make up almost one-half of all aboriginal people. Our future truly belongs to our youth, and we are their guardians. It is imperative that we ensure their access to an education that allows them to compete in our national and global economies.
We must give them knowledge that balances the promise of future technologies with the wisdom of our ancestors, so they can walk confidently and proudly in both the First Nations and mainstream worlds. We must teach them about our inherent and treaty rights and the importance of self-determination. And we must inspire them to take pride in the languages and traditions sacred to First Nations people. Only then can they accept with passion and commitment their responsibility as stewards of both our territories and the teachings and traditions of our ancestors.
Our youth are the true beneficiaries of the wealth and riches of this land. It will all pass one day into their hands for them to hold until they pass it on to future generations. Only by our example will they learn how to be strong guardians and wise stewards. As national chief, it will be my duty to ensure that the office I hold provides such a model with dignity and integrity.
Perry Bellegarde is a candidate for national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. He is a councillor for the Little Black Bear First Nation, a former grand chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, and a former Saskatchewan regional vice chief.