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First Nations processes translate to Afghanistan

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Sometimes we have to travel far away to realize the answers are right here at home. At least that's one of the lessons Renee Filiatrault learned when she was a diplomacy officer in Kandahar, Afghanistan, negotiating between Canada, the military and the Afghans.

At first glance, there seems to be little relevance between aboriginal issues and the work she did in that country. But as Filiatrault delved into her past, there were definite similarities that were both informative and somewhat shocking.

As a former press secretary to minister of Indian affairs, Robert Nault, she visited and worked with many First Nations amidst a dynamic and challenging political atmosphere.

I was curious to know what lessons time and separation from First Nations issues had given her and how she compared experiences in both Canada and Afghanistan.

"My time with the minister completely changed my view of First Nations issues," she said. "He made a commitment early on to visit as many communities as he could. I traveled with him on many of those visits and it brought me right up to the reality that -- as many say -- we seldom acknowledge."

Filiatrault said she first noticed how bad it was in some areas -- much worse than expected and, surprisingly, how relatively good it was in others. "Sometimes we had a meeting in a trailer, other times at a brand new school. Communities were not homogenous in economic status, the issues they encounter, the historical reality they have had to deal with or the appetite for legislative involvement. Prior to this, I had naively seen First Nations as having a widely shared, similar agenda."

She was repeatedly schooled on the importance of culture and cultural understandings, and on working with elders -- critical experience in creating the support needed for development projects in Kandahar.

She was often questioned by her peers about the "aboriginal problem" and witnessed many give up hope on finding solutions. This is something she regretfully witnessed again when in Afghanistan.

"The fact that our most successful project was about providing water through the Dalma Dam irrigation project -- although not about potable water -- was a coincidence not lost on me."

She said the Taliban threatened to kill all those supporting development, which is why her colleague, the project manager, felt strongly about gaining the trust of the people being threatened. "Without the support of the elders, Afghans would not risk their lives to protect the project."

She said it took an enormous consultation process with the elders of every village, but the fact it went smoothly is a testament to what many had learned working with aboriginal elders in Canada.

In fact, she argues living side by side with First Nations has given Canada a unique stance globally, as a nation of "natural negotiators" -- a skill that has value in the increasingly globalized world.

Having worked both with First Nations and other communities internationally, I would agree she has a unique perspective.

"We've traditionally had the voice of reason and the middle way," she said. "I hope this gives some sense of why I think Canadians are ideally placed for a trusted relationship with Afghans and just about anybody we deal with internationally. My time at INAC and in Afghanistan has made me believe it more than ever."

Speaking with Renee, you cannot help but surmise this international stature Canada holds was brought about by our relationship with First Nations. It is a leap in logic to go from thinking of aboriginal peoples as Canada's disadvantaged, to Canada's salvation. If we look at our historical roots, however, it is compelling.

Through treaties, we have found a way, however imperfect, to bring together different cultures, with different world views, under the umbrella of a relationship. This is a model worth watching and emulating globally. Worth watching because it is constantly evolving and worthy of the honour we must bring to the relationship. Worth emulating, because it respects the perspective of the peoples within the partnership. It is not one partner absorbing the other, but the marrying of two.

Renee's lessons learned are profound and prove the point it is the young people of our province, trained in the art and skills of diplomacy and of bringing together seemingly insurmountable differences in world views, who are the most capable of bringing together the disadvantaged with the powerful.

However imperfect our city and province, we do have the means to move cultures forward together. This is not a skill set to be found just anywhere.


James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty

Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion,

facilitate public understanding, and enhance

mutual respect between all peoples in Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 30, 2013 A13

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