By Rolene Marks
These are the words of indigenous rights activist Ryan Bellerose, a native north American from Alberta, Canada in an exclusive interview with LOTL
Bellerose is a Métis from Northern Alberta, a Native People recognised by the Canadian government as Aboriginal. While his father, Mervin Bellerose, co-authored the Métis Settlements Act of 1989, which the Alberta legislature passed in 1990 affirming Native land rights, Ryan founded a Native rights advocacy group ‘Canadians For Accountability’, and is an activist for “Idle No More”, a movement supporting indigenous sovereignty and land and water stewardship.
So, it was instructive to learn what a respected activist well versed with the issues of ‘indigenous rights’, thinks about Israelis that are constantly accused as being colonialists – a foreign import at the expense of the “indigenous” Arabs.
By “indigenous people”, Bellerose explains, “I am talking about ethnoreligious tribal peoples who have demonstrated ties to specific ancestral lands and sacred places.” He cites the “five pillars” of indigenous Identity as:
“Land, Language, Culture, Blood and Spirituality.”
All these characteristics are “what defines an indigenous people and cements its identity.”
To graphically demonstrate, he holds out a hand and says, “imagine my thumb and four fingers representing the five pillars; you can have a functional identity even if you are missing one of those fingers but the more you lose, the less functional it becomes, resulting in identity erosion.”
So how does this champion for the rights of indigenous people, emerge as an outspoken supporter of Israel?
“What many forget or conveniently dismiss,” he says, “Jews have had a constant presence in the land of Israel since time immemorial and this has continued despite exile, persecution, and war. Jews have managed to maintain a corpus presence in the Land of Israel for over 3000 years while maintaining their core identity and so when the chance came to return home, they took it. And when they got home…I mean that’s pretty amazing. They came back and built a nation.”
Bellerose has made a study of Israel following his fascination with the country from his childhood. Brought up as a Roman Catholic like many Métis who were forcefully converted, “I was captivated as a kid reading the stories in the Old Testament. As I got older and studied the history more, I realised that there was a disparity between what I was told – Israel is an entity of colonialists – and the truth that Jews are in fact indigenous and have deeper ties to the land than the people I was being told were indigenous. I simply applied the same standards and logic that I applied with every other indigenous people in the world and it wasn’t hard to see something was way off.”
All in the Family
Asked what motivated him to become an activist, Bellerose replies “I am following a family tradition. Activism courses through our veins. While my dad worked all over the world in the oilfields, in forestry and basically did all kinds of jobs, he always spoke up for his fellow workers; he was intensely involved in the struggle for Métis Rights. Although he loathed politics, he nevertheless became the Chairman of the Board for our settlement and worked afterwards as the Resource Director where he was the first to ever manage the settlement at a profit rather than at a loss like his predecessors. Growing up around Dad, his values rubbed off on me and helped me understand how important it was to make my voice heard when I saw inequalities.”
Hailing from the Paddle Prairie Métis settlement in the far north of Alberta Canada, “we are at the edge of the arboreal forest, which means right where the taiga (pine trees and the last non-coniferous trees) meets the muskeg (swamp). I grew up without running water or electricity during my early childhood and we hunted, fished, and cultivated crops. We lived an hour-and-a-half away by car from the nearest town. My family traces our roots back to the first families and we have always been active in the struggle for indigenous rights.”
What counsel did this esteemed activist have for young Jewish students on campus around the world that have become such hostile environments for supporters of Israel?
Firstly, says Bellerose, “be proud of who you are; your people have an amazing story; have contributed a disproportionate amount to the world, in the fields of science, literature, and many other fields, but the most important thing is that you managed to do a few things that are the goal of every indigenous people – you managed to achieve self -determination on your ancestral lands. Think of it, against all odds, you resurrected your indigenous ancient language. What has been achieved in Israel is an example to many other indigenous people.”
Contrary to the accusation of Jews in Israel being “colonisers”, Bellerose asserts “you are a Middle Eastern people who endured a long and painfully diaspora and returned home after two millennia years of forced exile. I frequently speak at youth conferences in Northern California, because it is critical to reach out to young people with the facts BEFORE they get onto campus. We don’t want their first experience on campus to be getting yelled at about Israel and being unprepared.”
Today, Bellerose does work with the California-based organisation Club Z and often does speaking engagements on behalf of Stand With Us.
Bellerose avers that “identity is at the centre of everything and while Israelis have a strong identity, they sometimes come across as weak because they do not understand how the other side views the world.”
What does this ingenious rights activist mean by this statement?
“For instance, you can tell me something is important to you and I will believe you but if you fail to follow up your words with action, your words will not find traction and you weaken your own case. People will believe your actions over your words.”
He cites the case of the Temple Mount that “is supposed to be the most sacred place for Jews in the entire world, yet many Jews act like it is not important. To an outsider this means that you don’t really care and if we just push you hard enough you will give it up. Now you and I both know that Jews are stubborn and patient. Afterall, you did manage to return to your ancestral home after being sent into exile by the Romans 2000 years ago but to an outsider it appears like you don’t care about the Temple Mount – that it is not critical to your ancestral rights. If you believe, you need to set red lines and Europe and the Arab world would take you far more seriously regarding Jerusalem and your inherent rights to it. In other words, the stronger your Jewish identity, the more they will respect you, the weaker it is, the more they will attempt to undermine your rights. I know from our own experience.”
To those that criticize Bellerose for so publicly and proudly supporting Israel he responds that “the Jews are the indigenous people of Israel; the facts tell us that beyond doubt. Arabs are indigenous but not to Israel. Arabs invaded Israel in the 7th century CE and this is a historical fact.” To those who accuse him of betraying his indigenous pedigree he has a strong message:
“I am going to ask you nicely – stop lying to Indians and stop trying to steal the Jewish people’s story, because people like me will call you out, every damn time.”
Ryan Bellerose is a Métis from Northern Alberta. His father, Mervin Bellerose, co-authored the Métis Settlements Act of 1989, which was passed by the Alberta legislature in 1990 and cemented his land rights. Ryan founded Canadians For Accountability, a Native rights advocacy group, and was an Idle No More (INM)* movement organizer. He is also a founding member in the Calgary United with Israel (CUWI) organization.
Feature picture credit: Times of Israel