'Overcome with emotion': First Nations student named Rhodes scholar
The first Canadian First Nations student to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship says he’s hoping to serve as an inspiration to other indigenous people, while also changing the way First Nations people are so often portrayed.
Billy-Ray Belcourt, a member of the Driftpile Cree Nation, near Joussard, Alb., who’s been studying Comparative Literature student at the University of Alberta, says he was “overcome with emotion” when he learned he had been chosen for the prestigious scholarship. The first person he called was his grandmother, who he says was a major force in his upbringing.
Because he was in tears, she assumed something was terribly wrong, but when he told her the good news, “we started crying together and sort of rejoicing in the success,” he told CTV’s Canada AM Friday from Edmonton.
Rhodes scholarships are awarded to 89 scholars every year, including 11 Canadians, to allow them to complete postgraduate work at the University of Oxford in England. They are awarded on the basis of “exceptional intellect, character, leadership, and commitment to service.”
Belcourt has already shown himself to be a hard worker: he is the president of the Aboriginal Student Council at U of A, sits on various committees at the university, is a poet and published author, and has managed to maintain a perfect 4.0 GPA average.
Now, he’s planning to do his master’s in Women’s Studies and Medical Anthropology, focusing on the health issues facing indigenous people in Canada.
Belcourt says the discussion about aboriginal people is often about how colonialism has led to physical violence against indigenous people that continues to this day.
“But I was seeing in my activist work, indigenous people’s bodies were actually doing that work -- wearing them down, depleting them, exhausting them through illnesses and infections, such as HIV and diabetes,” he said.
He hopes to study that more and learn how to effect change in communities “from a culturally safe, indigenous-specific health model.”
Since being appointed a Rhodes scholar, Belcourt says he’s received a lot of attention and feels he’s being portrayed as a First Nations leader who’s going to change the world.
“I don’t know if I’m going to change the world per se, but I want to change someone’s world, or perhaps help new worlds come into existence,” he said.
“I just want First Nations students in particular to be able to see me in the news, for example, or giving talks at conferences or in communities, and think they can achieve the same things that I have.”
During the flurry of media attention, Belcourt says he has also been misquoted, with one report portraying him as a victim of family violence. That’s not true, but he says that reporter’s assumption is part of a persistent narrative that all indigenous people are victims of suffering.
“So I want to combat the way that mainstream media constructs stories about indigenous peoples -- specifically when we succeed,“ he said.