(Pictured L to R: Canupawakpa Dakota Nation Chief Frank Brown, former Roseau River First Nation chief Terry Nelson, Plains Wahpeton First Nation Chief Orville Smoke and former Sioux Valley First Nation chief Ken Whitecloud. APTN/Photo)
By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
Iranian officials are “working very hard” to bring a group of Manitoba First Nations leaders to Tehran and address the Iranian parliament, said former Roseau River First Nation chief Terry Nelson after a meeting with an Iranian diplomat Monday.
Nelson, along with two Dakota chiefs and an adviser, met with Kambiz Sheikh-Hassani, the charge d’affaires at Iran’s Ottawa embassy, for about an hour Monday afternoon.
“They were pretty clear on the message. They are working very hard to get us the invitation to Iran and they are taking us very seriously,” said Nelson. “They are going to work with us to make sure that the stories of what happened to our people will get out.”
The Iranian regime has been condemmed by human rights groups over its brutal repression of dissent. Iranian authorities have fired on student demonstrations and regulary jail political dissidents.
Nelson travelled from Winnipeg to Ottawa with a handful of supporters to blitz dozens of embassies this week with information about Canada’s negative treatment of First Nations people.
Seen by many as a firebrand, Nelson visited Iraq in 1998 and authored the 2007 Day of Action Assembly of First Nations motion that lead to a Mohawk blockade of a major highway and rail lines between Ottawa and Toronto.
Nelson says he was recently ousted as chief of Roseau River in a “coup” orchestrated by the federal Aboriginal Affairs department.
The department in February postponed a planned referendum vote on whether Roseau River wanted a band government under a custom code or under the Indian Act. Nelson won repeated elections as an Indian Act band chief. The department pushed the referendum to an unspecified date after a Federal Court ruling decided a competing chief, selected under a custom code, was the legitimate leader.
Nelson was accompanied to Monday’s meeting by Canupawakpa Dakota Nation Chief Frank Brown, Dakota Plains Wahpeton First Nation Chief Orville Smoke and former Sioux Valley First Nation chief Ken Whitecloud, who was acting as and adviser.
“They understand what Aboriginals are going through,” said Brown. “They also said they are demonized and I can understand that too. Everyone says Iran is a…warring country. We all face the same things from a stronger country that wants to demonize smaller people.”
APTN National News could not reach Iranian embassy officials Monday for comment.
Canada has taken a hard line against Iran over the belief the Islamic nation is developing a nuclear weapons program. There is widespread speculation that Israel could strike Iran within the next few months in a move that would also draw in the U.S. and possibly spark a wider conflict.
Iran is also currently facing biting international economic sanctions.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said the Iranian regime would use nuclear weapons even if it meant its own destruction.
Iran, however, has used the poverty afflicting many First Nations communities in Canada, as a diplomatic weapon against Canada.
In January, the Iranian foreign ministry said it had summoned the Canadian charge d’affaires in Tehran over Canada’s treatment of Aboriginal people.
“The unfavorable condition of the Indigenous Canadians is a cause of sorrow and grief for the international community and the Islamic Republic of Iran strongly protests against the blatant violation of these people’s rights by the Canadian government,” said the ministry in a statement at the time.
Monday’s meeting came at the request of Nelson who recently sent a letter to the Iranian embassy addressed to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad requesting an audience with the Iranian parliament.
Nelson said Monday’s meeting was approved by Tehran. He said Iran sees a potential visit by First Nations leaders as an opportunity to improve its image.
“I think the (trip) will happen,” said Nelson. “I think they are very serious about trying to undo the picture that everybody has about Iran. That in fact, the Western media has been very clear that Iran is an unsafe country, that it has human rights violations. The media paints Iran as the aggressor, but (Sheikh-Hassani) was clear in his message that (Iran) never has attacked another country.”
Smoke said Indigenous people in Canada are running out of options and should be looking to other countries for investment and political help.
“We have tried everything humanly possible in our country and it seems like every door we open there is nothing for us,” he said. “We don’t have any treaties (with Canada or Manitoba) and that is why I think we have a right to go to any country, any entity, that can help us and I am hoping that this is one of them.”
The Dakota, who never signed treaties with Canada, are currently battling Ottawa in Federal Court over recognition of their title over their traditional territory. Ottawa considers the Dakota in Manitoba “refugees” from the U.S., but the Dakota assert they’ve inhabited and used territory in Canada since time immemorial.
The Dakota are also fighting Manitoba finance authorities who have executed four raids on a smoke shop set up on Dakota territory. The smoke shop is selling tax-free cigarettes manufactured by federally-licensed Rainbow Tobacco, which is based in the Quebec Mohawk community of Kahnawake.
Brown said profits from the sale of cigarettes have gone toward the purchase of a new fire truck and bison meat for the Dakota communities.
There are also plans to allow customers to use non-perishable food as trade items for cigarettes. The food would then be distributed to poor families in their communities, he said.
The Dakota also plan to set up a casino on their territory and a bank, said Brown.
“When the Dakota is non-treaty to Canada, there is no arrangement between Canada and Dakota on Dakota’s land, that is the issue,” he said. “If there is no arrangement between Canada and the Dakota, then whose land is it? It is Dakota lands. If there is no arrangement then Canada has no jurisdiction over Dakota land.”
Nelson said there are plans to hold a small rally in front of the Iranian embassy Tuesday morning at about 10 a.m.