Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, gives an address at a B.C. Assembly of First Nations special chiefs’ assembly at Nanaimo’s Vancouver Island Conference Centre on Thursday morning. (Greg Sakaki/News Bulletin)

First Nations chiefs talk federal budget, racism at assembly in Nanaimo

National Chief Perry Bellegarde speaks at B.C. Assembly of First Nations gathering

B.C. First Nations chiefs are getting through a lot of business in a short time in Nanaimo, and the national chief assured them he’s lobbying hard for them these days.

Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was in town Thursday morning to address a B.C. Assembly of First Nations special chiefs’ assembly, being held over two days at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre.

Bellegarde gave a wide-ranging talk and told the assembly that he’ll be advocating to the “big money chief,” Finance Minister Bill Morneau, leading up to the federal budget.

“We have to lobby, we have to advocate so there’s more money for education and housing and infrastructure, all of those things that you need at the First Nations level so you can meet the needs of your people based on treaty rights, based on aboriginal rights, fundamental human rights,” Bellegarde said. “There still has to be greater investments because the socio-economic gap that exists between Canadians and First Nations people still exists and it’s huge.”

There was also talk of racism and discrimination and an acknowledgment that some of that has been stirred up around protests in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern B.C.

“We say the lateral violence has to end, discrimination has to stop, and that you can’t criminalize people for defending land and water. You can’t criminalize people for standing up for their rights, title and jurisdiction,” Bellegarde said, adding that the “inconvenience” caused doesn’t compare at all to the injustice that indigenous people feel.

“So there’s got to be a lot of education and awareness that has to happen,” he said. “And that should lead to understanding and that should lead to action so that there’s an embracing of those principles of peaceful coexistence and respect between our people so that we mutually benefit from sharing the land and the resource wealth.”

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Bellegarde touched on some other work the AFN is doing around on trying to “fix” policies around comprehensive claims, additions to reserves and self-government, policies he says are currently based on termination of rights and title, not recognition of rights and title.

He praised some of the B.C. First Nations that have taken leadership on clean energy, reiterated the importance of consultation on resource development projects, and even touched on coronavirus precautions. Bellegarde said when he met with Premier John Horgan yesterday, the two bumped elbows rather than shake hands. The national chief quipped that in hockey and politics, when you throw an elbow, you want to go either high or low.

“We lift our hands up to you for being a voice for our people, but it’s nice to also know you have the elbows for our people,” said Snuneymuxw Coun. Bill Yoachim.

The BCAFN special chiefs’ assembly is being co-chaired by Doug White III and Michelle Corfield, and close to 10 resolutions each day are anticipated.

“I am really impressed by the thoughts and ideas coming forward about how to unite the country and how to unite British Columbia,” Corfield said. “How do we bring forward these very contentious issues that have plagued us for so long in a meaningful way, working with the provincial government and federal government and First Nations alike? That message, to me, has been resounding.”

Chief Ralph Leon, Jr. of the Sts’ailes First Nation in Mission-Agassiz said some people say that the assembly has been talking about the same things for 10 years, but he said he has seen that discussion evolve.

“A lot of these issues are really important, and my neighbours’ commitments are important to me, too…” he said. “We sit together and that’s the only way we can make it work, when we sit together and we work together and that’s what I’ve seen here in the last couple days.”

READ ALSO: It’s up to all Wet’suwet’en people to work through agreement, says Bellegarde

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