The news went national in November 2015: Billy-Ray Belcourt, a 21-year-old Comparative Literature student at the University of Alberta, has been named a 2016 Rhodes Scholar, one of 11 Canadian students to receive the prestigious scholarship for post-graduate studies at Oxford University. What makes Belcourt’s award notable is that he is the first First Nations student to be named a Rhodes Scholar.
Belcourt is from the Driftpile Cree Nation in northwestern Alberta. When he applied for the scholarship, he detailed his family’s experiences with racism and the trauma of residential school (his grandfather is a survivor). Local media went with the usual story angle: First Nations person becomes successful in spite of experiencing violence. Belcourt took issue with that portrayal, and wrote a blog post entitled “Dear Media, I Am More Than Just Violence,” in which he advised journalists that “Indigenous suffering should not be your angle.” He says his Rhodes Scholarship should signal a change in the way Aboriginal peoples are so often portrayed. He then refused to participate in any further media coverage of his scholarship.
True, there is so much more to Belcourt’s life and work than the trauma of colonialism: he is president of the University of Alberta’s Aboriginal Student Council and sits on many committees at the university. He has travelled across Canada working as a peer facilitator for the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, and he has called attention to the lack of culturally appropriate health education models and health-care services in many Indigenous communities. He is an advocate for queer and trans rights, and he co-founded the Indigenous Feminist Collective at the University of Alberta. Indeed, the Rhodes Scholarship — which is awarded to young students of “outstanding intellect, character, leadership, and commitment to service” — recognizes Belcourt’s many strengths and accomplishments as an individual.
Is Belcourt a shining example of intellectual achievement? Yes: he had a 4.0 GPA at the University of Alberta. Is he a shining example of a well-rounded individual? Yes: he won medals in doubles badminton in high school, he writes poetry, and he maintained that perfect grade-point average at the U of A while still being active in extra-curricular activities such as student government. But he achieved all that by overcoming barriers to education that non-Indigenous Canadians don’t even have to consider. To ignore that fact would be to deny the very real context of Belcourt’s achievement — and the impacts of colonialism that every Indigenous person in Canada must deal with on an everyday basis.
Sometimes, people fear that if we talk about the impacts of colonial trauma then we’re propping up negative stereotypes about First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Recognizing Belcourt as an individual of spectacular accomplishment does not mean ignoring the fact that he has survived colonization, as all Indigenous peoples have, and succeeded in spite of it. The reality is, Belcourt’s grandfather experienced the pain of residential school. Driftpile First Nation suffers from the same intergenerational impacts of colonialism as other First Nations communities in Canada. And many Indigenous peoples and communities have survived and thrived in spite of the barriers created by a colonial society that has done everything in its power to make Indigenous peoples disappear.
For educators, the issue is this: if reconciliation is to be a force for change in the coming days, we must speak about the painful and difficult parts of colonization. Our students need to know how the systems and institutions of colonial society sought to destroy Indigenous peoples and societies, and how that colonial agenda created the socio-economic issues we see in Aboriginal communities today. That, in itself, goes a long way toward dispelling stereotypes. By pointing to the ways in which the settler colonial state perpetrated — and continues to perpetrate — violence against Indigenous peoples, we show that socio-economic issues within Aboriginal communities are not the result of supposed inherent flaws within Indigenous peoples or societies, but actually the result of colonial interference. However, teaching from within a Best Practices framework means that whenever educators acknowledge the devastating impact colonialism has had on Indigenous peoples and communities, they must also portray Aboriginal peoples as empowered individuals. That means starting the discussion by identifying the ways in which Indigenous peoples have responded to the challenges of colonization by making contributions to their own communities and to Canada.
Belcourt is currently deciding between three programs (he can take two): a master’s degree in Medical Anthropology (in which he plans to research how colonialism has contributed to increased rates of HIV in Indigenous populations in Canada and design a culturally appropriate HIV-prevention model), Women’s Studies, or Visual Anthropology (in which he plans to focus on the reasons why photographers and artists try to capture what Belcourt calls “precarious objects” — life forms that are depleted or exhausted — and “what it means to render those objects still and in that moment for photographic capture”).
It must be overwhelming to be thrust into the national spotlight overnight at the tender age of 21. Let’s give Belcourt a little space, so he can find his gifts and his path in life. In the meantime, don’t avoid the painful past — just make sure to balance that narrative by portraying Indigenous peoples as empowered individuals, and more than just victims.
To watch an interview with Billy-Ray Belcourt on CTV’s Canada AM, click here.
To listen to an interview with Billy-Ray Belcourt on CBC Radio One’s As It Happens, click here.
Download a copy of the Best Practices document created by the Aboriginal Education Centre at the Toronto District School Board in 2006 and updated by Dragonfly in 2015: best-practices-aboriginal-education