Sask’s Bellerose says chiefs standing together will strengthen AFN


Bellerose, former chief of the Muskowekwan First Nation in Saskatchewan, believes his strongest asset for the position comes through his voice.

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“Unfinished business” is one reason why Reginald Bellerose decided to take another run at the position of national chief for the Assembly of First Nations, having conceded following the fifth ballot in 2021 to RoseAnne Archibald.

“These are tough roles, right? So there’s a spiritual process you need to take because … it all comes down to the individual. You need to be in a good spot in your own life. You need to be healthy. You know that spiritual health, all the health factors,” he said.

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Bellerose believes his strongest asset for the position comes through his voice.

He says some chiefs are successful on their own, able to access help and the resources they need by themselves. He won’t stand in their way and, if he can, he’ll clear the way for them.

And for the chiefs who don’t feel their voices are being heard federally or provincially and who reach out to him for help, he’ll do just that.

“Someone’s got to get in there and say ‘these are the first leaders of the country. No one else has their inherent rights. You need to listen to them’,” Bellerose said.

“That’s really my strength. All of my time in leadership has been my voice. I’ve been able to get to the right table and let people know what we’re dealing with.”

Joanna Bernard
Newly-appointed Interim National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Joanna Bernard, centre, gets help adjusting her regalia before leading the grand procession during the AFN annual general assembly in Halifax on Tuesday, July 11, 2023.

Children, youth a priority

Bellerose, former chief of the Muskowekwan First Nation in Saskatchewan, announced his nomination only the day before deadline.

He stood with children at his announcement.

“I put them as a priority and there’s obviously a lot of priorities in the country, but the children and youth, they need the best Mother Earth that we can leave them. They need the best education, the best health. They should not be given less, something that’s substandard,” said Bellerose.

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It is because of that commitment to children that Bellerose believes it’s so important to get the AFN back on track. The last two-and-a-half years of tension among AFN leaders and staff culminated in Archibald being ousted over allegations of harassment of staff and breaching the AFN whistleblower policy. It was a very public battle that at times pit community chiefs against the AFN executive.

Bellerose says the “key solution” to handling the turmoil surrounding AFN is to bring the chiefs back into assembly.

He points to the last two major votes that were held at the AFN and the decreased participation numbers. In the 2021 election, only about 55 per cent of the chiefs voted. In June 2023, when Archibald was ousted, only about one-third of chiefs participated.

“We need the chiefs to come back. They are the ones that need to come and support the vision of the successful leader here in 2023 and start to unite,” Bellerose said.

He understands that chiefs have concerns and challenges at home “but we also need you to come here and support the organization because we’re only as strong as the number of chiefs who show up.”

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AFN assembly 2023
The Eastern Eagles Mi’kmaq drumming group performs at the beginning of the Assembly of First Nations annual general assembly in Halifax on Tuesday, July 11, 2023. Photo by Darren Calabrese /The Canadian Press

National campaign for connection

Bellerose hopes that by going across country on his campaign for national chief that he’ll be able to connect with the chiefs and their communities, remind them he’s supported them in the past, and that AFN can be a relevant organization once more.

“One chief standing alone facing their challenges, it’s a difficult place to stand. But, all of a sudden, you get chiefs standing with you … you’re stronger in numbers and it feels a lot better when you go out there and you think, ‘Geez, this is a tough challenge I’m dealing with’ and chiefs stand with you. You go back to your people and you say, ‘Yeah, chiefs are there for us.’ We’re there for each other. It’s a good feeling,” he said.

Further support for chiefs, he believes, will come through structural changes at the AFN, something that has been in the works for the past two decades.

Bellerose says he will be implementing the recommendations from a panel that has examined discrimination in the workplace.

Resolution 13, Becoming A Role Model in Ending Sexual Orientation and Gender-Based Discrimination Within the Assembly of First Nations, was passed in the December 2020 special chiefs assembly. This past July, a panel appointed by the AFN, delivered its findings on the sexualized violence and harassment that operates within the organization. Chiefs were told that such behaviour is prevalent.

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“We need to end this toxic work environment where women are not feeling safe at the AFN. We have to address that because women did express and shared their experiences and it’s not a positive one,” said Bellerose.

First Nations call
MP Charlie Angus (NDP – Timmins-James Bay) joined Mushkegowuk Grand Chief Alison Linklater and Kashechewan Chief Gaius Wesley in calling for First Nations leaders to be included in health-care negotiations earlier this year. sas

The Prime Minister ‘should be listening’

Another change high on his priority list is having chiefs get more time with politicians. Gone will be the days when federal politicians attend AFN assemblies, deliver their speeches and leave time to answer only one or two questions.

“The Prime Minister should be sitting there listening to the chiefs. I’m not interested in selfies with Trudeau, with any prime minister. We need housing. We need employment. We need greater investments in community safety. We need investments in health and wellness. That’s what I’m interested in advancing. Not selfies,” he said.

Every resolution passed is direction to the AFN, he said, and it’s his role to open the doors to government officials to set up the meetings for First Nations.

Bellerose wants to open doors to chiefs in Alberta, as well and engage in dialogue with them. Alberta has been without an AFN regional chief since 2021 and many Treaty 8 nations in the province don’t want to be involved with the organization.

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“It all comes down to leadership and as best as you can go meet them and explain what your vision is. I think if we look at the … many common factors, I think the commonalities will far outweigh the differences that we have,” he said.

The next national chief may have to deal with a possible change of government with a federal election slated for no later than 2025. An election may remove the federal Liberals from power and result in a Conservative government with leader Pierre Poilievre at the helm.

Nothing changes when it comes to the nation-to-nation relationship between First Nations and Canada, regardless of who the government is, says Bellerose.

Legal political obligations to First Nations in Canada exist no matter who is power, he adds.

“Each party, obviously, has different platforms when it comes to dealing with First Nations, but we need to get in front of all of the parties and say, ‘You need to make this a top priority for your party.’ Reconciliation is not just up to the department. Meaningful reconciliation is the responsibility of the Crown in right of Canada,” said Bellerose.

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However, he adds, the ability of the AFN to advocate for First Nations’ needs are higher when resolutions are passed by 500 chiefs instead of only 200.

“For the next federal election, the AFN needs to be working with all party leaders and saying, ‘If you’re successful, you need to make time for our chiefs’,” said Bellerose.

Bear Claw Casino on White Bear First Nation
Bear Claw Casino on White Bear First Nation in Saskatchewan. In 2022-23, Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority recorded $126 million in profit. Photo by Bryan Schlosser

Gaming revenue provides benefits

As for platform priorities, Bellerose, who is the current chair of the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority, sets gaming revenue as a priority.

“We look at the seven generations of wealth. We’re always looking forward to the future,” he said, and gaming revenue would provide benefits for all First Nations.

He points to Saskatchewan’s success story when it comes to a First Nation gaming model, with British Columbia and Ontario also sharing gaming revenue with First Nations.

Climate change and environmental sovereignty are also a “big focus.” With fires and floods, “nations need more control over the emergency management under rights and jurisdiction,” said Bellerose.

Lands and resources are part of environmental sovereignty, he adds, and work needs to be done to respond to the infringement on inherent rights and jurisdiction.

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As for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, Bellerose says “it’s now about the action plan.”

Shari Narine is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for windtalker.com. The LJI program is federally funded by the Government of Canada.

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