• Chief Perry Bellegarde, right, with RCGS CEO John Geiger and President Gavin Fitch at an event celebrating his appointment as Honorary President of the Society, held Nov. 4 at Canada’s Centre for Geography and Exploration in Ottawa. (Photo: Ben Powless/Can Geo)

As a passionate advocate for the rights of First Nations, Chief Perry Bellegarde upholds the notion that peace and friendship are the keys to building a better and brighter future for Canada. 

Today, in naming Bellegarde as Honorary President of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the organization is embracing a present and future in which the spirit of reconciliation flows through every aspect of its work.

Bellegarde’s appointment to the Society’s top honorary position is a further acknowledgment of the long relationship and strong ties between the former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations and the Society. 

“There have only been seven Honorary Presidents in the history of the Society,” says RCGS CEO John Geiger. “It is an honour reserved for eminent individuals who have rendered outstanding service to their country and to the Society. Perry Bellegarde has dedicated his life to championing the rights and well-being of First Nations in Canada and around the world, and we are very proud that he has accepted this role.”

Bellegarde’s appointment was announced and celebrated with a ceremony held at Canada’s Centre for Geography and Exploration, the Society’s headquarters at 50 Sussex Drive in Ottawa.

“I am humbled to be named the Honorary President for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society,” says Bellegarde. “This appointment speaks directly to the modernization and transformation of long-established institutions. Fundamental to our Indigenous teachings is the fact that everything and everyone on Earth are related. If one comes to believe this, then the arc of humanity can bend our course for the future toward the restoration of our natural world. It is in this spirit — and with this focus moving forward — that I embrace the role of Honorary President.”

Bellegarde recently played a critical role in the overwhelming success of the Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada, published by the Society in 2018. In his introduction to the First Nations volume, he zeroed in on the importance of setting a positive course for the next seven generations. “It is important we get to know each other, appreciate and celebrate our diversity and build bridges of understanding,” he wrote.

Over the past 35 years, Bellegarde has held a number of leadership roles, including serving two terms as the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (2014 to 2021). He has described himself as an oskâpêwis — a Cree word meaning “helper” — who continues to be guided by the teachings of First Nations Elders and Chiefs. 

As National Chief, he campaigned tirelessly to close the gap in the quality of life between First Nations and other families in Canada, leading the Assembly through a period of profound transformation in public awareness of First Nations concerns and priorities, including the crucial importance of First Nations expertise as Canada — and the world — grapples with the climate crisis. 

In recognition of his work, Chief Bellegarde was awarded the Society’s Gold Medal in 2018. Other honours he has received include the Confederation Medal, the Saskatchewan Centennial Medal and both the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal and Golden Jubilee Medal. In 2018, he was recognized with the Saskatchewan Order of Merit, and in 2019, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., for his extraordinary contribution to public service, arts, culture, law and government.

The Society’s most recent Honorary President was Alex Trebek, who held the position from 2016 until his passing in 2020. The Sudbury-born Jeopardy! host, philanthropist and human rights spokesperson was a lifelong champion of geographical education.

Learn more about the RCGS and the Honorary Presidency.

Bellegarde, centre, with his wife Valerie Galley Bellegarde, Elder Wilson Bearhead, and the staff of Canadian Geographic and the Royal Canadian Geographical Society outside Canada’s Centre for Geography and Exploration in Ottawa, Nov. 4, 2021. (Photo: Ben Powless/Can Geo)