Aboriginal leaders from Manitoba are being used as pawns by the Iranian government, an official from Canada's Foreign Affairs Ministry said Wednesday.
Two current and two former chiefs from Manitoba met with the senior diplomat at the Iranian embassy in Ottawa earlier this week. They say they are on track to get an invitation to visit Iran and meet with government officials about possible support and investments in First Nations in Canada.
"Iran has a long history of supporting indigenous sovereignty in North America," said Terry Nelson, former chief of the Roseau River First Nation south of Winnipeg.
Monday's meeting came about after Nelson sent a letter to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seeking assistance in February.
Nelson said he's written similar letters to other governments for years without a response. Iran was the first country to invite Nelson for a meeting.
However, the Canadian government said this is not a sincere effort on Iran's part.
"The Iranian regime is now attempting to exploit tragedy and feign concern as yet another PR stunt to distract from its own abhorrent record," said Joseph Lavoie, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. "We hope that the aboriginal leaders in question won't allow themselves to be used as pawns in this sad game the Iranians are playing."
Nelson said Iran is not using First Nations as pawns any more than Canada does. He cited what he described as the "photo op" of the recent national meeting between First Nations and Prime Minister Stephen Harper as an example.
Canupawakpa Dakota Nation Chief Frank Brown, Dakota Plains Wahpeton First Nation Chief Orville Smoke and former Sioux Valley First Nation chief Ken Whitecloud were also part of the meeting at the Iranian embassy March 12.
Nelson said one of the discussions was about the possibility of Iran helping to find financial backing for First Nations residents to get mortgages to build their own houses. He said with 80,000 new homes needed, it could be a $120-billion deal — but he added he knows Iran can't afford it because of the economic sanctions imposed on it by the international community — Canada included — over its nuclear program.
However, Nelson said Iranian officials hinted they could bring onside other nations in the Middle East.
Iran has a history of criticizing Canada on First Nations issues. Most recently in January, Iran summoned the senior diplomat at the Canadian Embassy in Tehran to criticize Canada for its treatment of First Nations. The government said the poor educational, economic and professional conditions of Canadian aboriginal people were a human rights violation.
Nelson's letter to Ahmadinejad came after he was ousted as chief at Roseau River in February after a drawn out battle. A federal court ruled another man was the legitimate chief and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada then postponed indefinitely a referendum to determine how the band would choose its future chiefs. Nelson called the decision a "coup."
Nelson dismissed the idea he turned to Iran because of the attention such a meeting would get from both the government and the media. He also dismissed questions about Iran's own record of treating indigenous Iranian people badly.
He said Iran is no worse than Canada when it comes to how it treats indigenous people.----
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