Billy-Ray Belcourt, first ever First Nations person
in Canada to receive the Rhodes Scholarship, cried with his grandma
after hearing news.
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
Now, he's planning to do his master's in Women's Studies and Medical
Anthropology, focusing on the health issues facing indigenous people
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
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.