OTTAWA -- Aboriginal leaders from Manitoba are being used as pawns by the Iranian government, an official from Canada's Foreign Affairs Department 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, formerly 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 in February seeking assistance. 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 the "photo op" of a national meeting of First Nations chiefs with 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 March 12 meeting at the Iranian Embassy.
Nelson said one of the discussions was about Iran possibly helping 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.
He said he knows Iran can't do it because of economic sanctions against it by several nations, including Canada, but added 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, Iran summoned the senior diplomat at the Canadian Embassy in Tehran in January to criticize Canada for its treatment of First Nations. Iran said the poor educational, economic and professional conditions of Canada's aboriginal people were a human rights violation.
Nelson's letter to Ahmadinejad came after Nelson was ousted as Roseau River chief in February after a drawn-out battle.
Nelson dismissed the idea he turned to Iran because of the attention such a meeting would get from the government and news media. He also dismissed questions about Iran's record of treating indigenous Iranians badly.
He said Iran is no worse than the government of Canada when it comes to treating indigenous people.