By Windspeaker.com Staff
With files from Jeremy Harpe of CFWE-FM
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde connected with Jeremy Harpe of CFWE-FM today for a brief, but far ranging, interview in which they touched on the suicide and fentanyl crises in First Nations communities and the abrupt halt of the National Inquiry’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls regional meetings—“Families are upset. We get that,” said Bellegarde.
Budget cuts and budget advancements, were discussed, as was the AFN’s relationship with the current federal government and the Bellegarde’s hopes for what he can accomplish before his time as national chief come to an end.
Bellegarde points to some communities’ efforts to banish drug pushers in the fight against deadly drugs laced with fentanyl as a way to keep communities safe. And he’s looking to Minister Jane Philpott to work in collaboration with First Nations to address the suicide crisis.
Bellegarde said Philpot is starting work on a national mental health wellness strategy which will be important as a long-term strategy to reduce the rates of suicide in Indigenous communities.
“One suicide is too many,” Bellegarde said, adding that the Indigenous youth suicide rate is five to seven times the national average.
“That’s not acceptable.”
Bellegarde believes we need to make sure there are teams ready to be on the ground immediately when a crisis hits a community.
He said “We are still feeling the intergenerational effects of residential schools and colonization and its all about getting back to the land, getting the languages, seeing hope, having inspiration because these lives are so precious and everybody is important.”
As for specific budget cuts to youth programs for education and training, like the First Nations Job Fund for young people on income assistance, Bellegarde said it’s important that government continue to support the Aboriginal Skills and Employment Training Program, as well as the Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSP).
The national chief said education and training is the best way out of poverty. He noted that the fastest growing segment of Canada’s population is young First Nations people, a pool of “human capital”.
“My message is, invest in human capital and you get a huge return on investments in the future.”
Bellegarde said there were 10,000 students on the wait-list for post secondary and the AFN lobbied and advocated hard for investments to the PSSP, and $90 million over two years was the Liberal government’s response.
“That’s going to go a long way to alleviating the stress and strain on the PSSP,” said National Chief Bellegarde.
He said this Liberal government seems to be listening and responding to the AFN’s ‘Closing the Gap’ document.
“They’ve talked about closing the gap, they’ve talked about making investments in education, and water and housing, and infrastructure,” said Bellegarde, but he warned that it’s going to take more than investment over a couple of fiscal years. He is looking 15 years down the road of continual investment.
He stressed the need to improve upon Indigenous peoples 63rd placing on the United Nations Human Development Index, where the rest of Canada places sixth.
So we are thankful it’s moving in the right direction, from last year’s investment of $8.4 billion and this year’s $3.4 billion dealing with Indigenous issues. It’s a movement and a step in the right direction. But again the gap is so huge it needs long-term sustained investments to make sure that gap closes.”
Bellegarde has three goals he would like to see accomplished before his time in office closes. “The low-hanging fruit,” he said, is his wish to see a National Indigenous Language Revitalization Act legislated before the next election.
“With 58 different (Indigenous) languages left in Canada… they should be viewed as Canada’s national treasures. They are not spoken anywhere else in the world.”
He’s also working towards a new fiscal relationship with the Crown and wishes to see the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.