In his first Assembly of First Nations (AFN) annual conference since taking office as National Chief six months ago, Perry Bellegarde spelled out what reconciliation really means—and urged indigenous people across Canada to vote in favor of it in the upcoming general election.
Urging chiefs to get constituents, especially youth, to register to vote on October 19, he said there are at least 51 districts whose results could be influenced if First Nations voters were to come to the polls, the Canadian Press reported. The recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report, which termed the boarding school era “cultural genocide,” has put indigenous concerns front and center, he said, making this an especially important time to act.
“With the promise of reconciliation comes an opportunity to rebuild this country in the manner our ancestors envisioned,” Bellegarde said in his opening keynote at the General Assembly on July 7.
“Reconciliation means nothing less than keeping the promises the Government of Canada first made to our people to share and live together in peaceful co-existence and mutual respect. Reconciliation means honoring those original promises.”
Doing so entails restoring the partnership on which the nation was built—one founded on mutual respect, regardless of differences—and truly sharing the wealth of the land, he said. That means not only respecting indigenous rights “to determine what happens in our traditional territories” but also respecting and sharing “in our commitment to Mother Earth to care for our lands and waters.”
The government has a legal duty to consult and accommodate First Nations peoples, Bellegarde said, and reconciliation entails honoring this.
“The way forward will be found through free, prior and informed consent, government-to-government, replacing the patriarchal imposition of governance without our involvement,” he said.
He also called for making indigenous languages official languages of Canada, its provinces and its territories, and allocating funds for programs to revitalize indigenous languages, create immersion programs in schools and develop community-based initiatives.
“We will not be the generation that stands by and watches our languages disappear,” Bellegarde said.
Missing and murdered indigenous women is another concern, Bellegarde said, making another push for a national inquiry. Moreover, reconciliation efforts should not stop with Indigenous Peoples, he emphasized.
“Reconciliation involves all Canadians,” Bellegarde said. “Just as all Canadians are learning the truth of our shared past, we ask that all Canadians appreciate the great potential that comes with reconciliation.”
Invoking the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report released on June 6, he said that the label of “cultural genocide” attached to the nation’s boarding school era underlines the need for understanding and healing, for all Canadians.
“A Canada that rights these wrongs and sets us on a path to the future our ancestors envisioned is a stronger, more vibrant, more prosperous Canada,” he said. “With justice and respect and healing will come strength, and fulfillment and the ability to lead healthy lives. With reconciliation comes an ability to contribute our talents, our ingenuity and our unique knowledge and understanding of this land.”
Bellegarde and other chiefs also urged Indigenous People to get active in this year’s election. Register to vote, they said, and oust the Conservative Party if need be. The two leading opposition candidates, New Democratic Party (NDP) Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, appeared at the assembly and gave speeches promising more attention to indigenous issues, The Globe and Mail reported.
“This is a matter of national importance, and there should be no greater effort put forward by us in the coming weeks and into the coming months,” said Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Derek Nepinak in his assembly speech, according to The Globe and Mail.
He exhorted indigenous leaders to get eligible youth in their communities to register to vote in the October 19 election, The Globe and Mail said.
“We all have the ability to cast a ballot to effect change in Ottawa,” Nepinak said. “We can mitigate the damages by voting for a different government in this upcoming election.”