A controversial former band leader from Manitoba who vied for the National Chief spot at the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) last summer may have accomplished what no amount of negotiation or meetings has done to date: given Canadian officials and aboriginal leaders something to agree on.
Both parties blasted former Roseau River First Nation Chief Terrance Nelson for his comments made in Iran about genocide and extermination of aboriginals in Canada. Nelson, thrown out of office about a year ago, alleged on Iran’s PressTV that Canada is trying to “exterminate” aboriginal people and said reserves were akin to concentration camps when they were formed in the 19th century. He also decried what he called the West’s “demonization” of Iranian people.
“The reservations were originally more or less concentration camps,” he said on an Iranian talk show during the visit, which he said aimed to foster connections between aboriginals and Iranians. “There’s no real economic development on reserves, so the reservations mostly have between 60 and 95 per cent unemployment. This is the root cause of the artificial poverty that’s on reserves: It is economic sanctions.”
Reaction from Canada was swift. “Canada will not take lessons from Iran, with its record of brutal human rights abuses and terrorism,” said Jason MacDonald, a spokesperson for Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AAND) John Duncan, to CBC News. The Conservative government, he said, has taken many “concrete steps” to improve conditions on reserves, which are governed by Canada’s century-and-a-half old Indian Act. McDonald added that government officials were “disappointed that Mr. Nelson has allowed himself to be used as a pawn by the Iranian regime in yet another PR stunt to distract from their own record.”
Publicity stunt or not, Nelson’s Iranian mission—joined by former Dakota Tipi First Nation Chief Dennis Pashe, also from Manitoba—has been long in the making. Earlier this year Nelson met with consular officials at the Iranian embassy in Ottawa, a move that got him branded as a radical by the Canadian government. And his AFN National Chief platform hinged on creating economic international ties independent of Canada.
“There are First Nations who aren’t dependent on the government of Canada,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network. “We can bring in our own sources of revenue. It’s critically important, when you have 60 to 95 per cent unemployment in most First Nations, to provide a process to come out of that economic apartheid. We have the ability to attract foreign investment. Eventually [we] will be funded by countries who want to sell their products into Canada.”
But his message has been condemned by other aboriginal leaders, who say that making concentration-camp comparisons, which evokes the Holocaust, are inflammatory and damage intercultural relationships.
“I don’t think it necessarily represents the views or perspectives of the bulk of indigenous people that live here,” Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, head of the Association of Manitoba Chiefs, told CBC News. “I think we live here peacefully within western Canadian society, and I think some of the messaging is not doing any good.”
Likewise, Jewish-Canadian organizations attacked Nelson’s comparisons as anti-semitic.
Nelson is no stranger to controversy. In the lead-up to a high-profile AFN National Day of Action in 2007, the then-chief threatened cross-Canada railway blockades against what he called Canadian “apartheid” and made off-the-cuff remarks about using violence.
“There’s only two ways to deal with white people, to have an effective resolution of the issues,” he said at the time. “You either pick up a gun and deal with the issue, or you stand between the white man and his money.”