Muskowekwan First Nation Chief Reginald Bellerose is running to be national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
Bellerose — who has led his First Nation for 17 years and is backed by the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations — is entering the ring to succeed National Chief Perry Bellegarde, a former chief of the FSIN and Little Black Bear First Nation.
Bellerose spoke to the StarPhoenix about First Nations sovereignty, the federal government and leadership as the country grapples with the discovery of unmarked residential school gravesites.
The interview is edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why are you running?
A: We need to share a united vision. But I want to focus on jurisdiction and rights, economic sovereignty, and health and wellness. The First Nations need to stand together, especially (over) jurisdictional encroachment. The federal government is transferring authorities (and) resources to the provinces, and it's not getting to First Nations.
Q: What does economic sovereignty mean?
A: We need to create a First Nations economy. We need to carve out a share of the dominant economy, where oftentimes we are left out. The one area in Saskatchewan where we do have market penetration is gaming. Look at cannabis. If you want to open a dispensary on the reserve, you need a licence.
The licences, the regulations, the authorities, need to come from our own (authority), not from another government. We're also going to look at the digital economy, and at green energy. That's economic sovereignty.
Q: What does First Nations taking ownership of healing and wellness look like?
A: The government is trying to say 'We can fund you to get better.' That's not working. The solutions need to come from the people, from the leaders, and not from government.
We hear about the racism of the health care systems across the country. But that's also because the federal government has transferred the jurisdiction over health to the provinces. We need our own infrastructure.
Q: Your community previously found 35 unmarked graves. Given the recent news, how would that experience inform your leadership as national chief?
A: We had a memorial to honour the 215 children at Kamloops. And the solution to all of that trauma is the Muskowekwan Family and Wellness Centre. We're creating a model of care for families, not individuals. It's a model where elders will come in and work with the families. It's not a Western paradigm, it's for us.
That's how we chose to try to bring forward solutions. And the school is still there, and it's not going to go away. We need those health and wellness programs delivered to First Nations who want them.
Q: We're likely heading into a federal election. What are the parties missing that you can spotlight as national chief?
A: The federal system is the problem. I don't believe it's the political party. The federal system has control through the Indian Act over much of the First Nations' (affairs).
Any party who comes in, they have to toe the line with the honour of the Crown. And (for) many First Nations, there is no honour of the Crown when you look at what's coming to light across the country. We need to get a strong, united voice that says, 'Ottawa, stop the way you're doing business. Let's figure out a new way.'
Nick Pearce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix