Billy-Ray Belcourt, ’16 BA(Hons), was one of two undergrads to receive a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University in 2016. He received a master’s degree there, and has been busy since returning to the U of A to pursue a PhD. That he is a Rhodes Scholar is something you may already have heard, so here are a few other things you should know about him.
1. He looks for breakthrough moments.
Belcourt was teaching creative writing to mostly Indigenous inmates at the Edmonton Remand Centre last fall when one of them said, “I honestly didn’t know that Indigenous people could be poets.” It was a “breakthrough moment” for everyone in the class, Belcourt says. “It pointed to the fact that our horizon of possibility is so limited, that the idea of being an Indigenous poet is unthinkable,” he said. “I never envisioned myself to be a writer either, growing up.”
2. He chose Edmonton over the U.S. and U.K.
After Oxford, he applied to and was accepted by four universities for doctoral studies, including University of California-Berkeley, the University of Toronto, the U of A and the University of Oxford. “I chose the U of A because I knew I had a community of support here,” he says. “Here I can thrive, make a difference and be someone people see as a leader.” Plus, his sister had a baby, and he aims to be an awesome uncle.
3. He is a poet.
He received support from the band in his home community of Driftpile Cree Nation to study comparative literature at the U of A. He published This Wound is a World, which CBC called one of the best poetry books of 2017. He has also completed a stint teaching at the Banff Centre.
4. He once gave a TEDx talk about colonialism, that opened with his experience with gallstones at 21.
On campus, he became an advocate for LGBTQ2 and Indigenous communities and served as president of the U of A’s Aboriginal Student Council. He never stops advocating.
5. He saw parts of the English countryside, thanks to volleyball.
He had the chance to travel in England as a member of his Oxford volleyball team. “We didn't do that well, but we went to places I wouldn’t have otherwise, like the village of Kettering—who’s heard of Kettering?”
6. He’s looking past normal.
Now back on campus as a PhD student in the Department of English and Film Studies, Belcourt plans to examine what he calls the “Indigenous paranormal” in art, poetry and film produced by Canada’s First Nations.
7. People are still paying attention to him.
It’s a lot of success — and attention — for someone so early in his career. “It is a lot of pressure, but I try to keep a sense of humour,” he says. “Part of it is just waiting for it to stop. When are they going on to someone new, someone shinier?”
For now, he’s reconciling himself to his role as a public figure, happily accepting a growing number of speaking engagements, forging a brand on his website and through social media, and doing the grassroots activist work that has come to define him, such as teaching at Edmonton’s Learning Centre Literacy Association. “For now, I'm just riding the tide and spreading the word.”
The original version of this story appeared in February 2018 in folio.
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