While many details have been rummaged through by analysts trying to explain the Canadian government's recent surprise announcement of breaking diplomatic ties with Iran, one important story has not received the attention it deserves: the story of the Ojibwa Chief Terrance (Terry) Nelson and his ongoing courtship with the Islamic Republic.
The fact is that John Baird, Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs, made the announcement about cutting ties with Iran shortly (3 days) after Terry Nelson announced that he will be leading an official delegation of First Nations chiefs to Iran next October.
Terry Nelson is a controversial 5-time former Chief of Roseau River, an Ojibwa reserve in southern Manitoba only 20 kilometers from the American border. Nelson had already made news when he staged a demonstration along with Dakota and Sioux chiefs in front of the Iranian Embassy in Ottawa, and was then officially invited to meet with the Iranian officials who promised to pass on his message to "highest authorities" in Iran.
What Nelson is attempting can have serious publicity and security implications for the Canadian government, both at home and internationally. Nelson is a popular leader among some disaffected aboriginal groups, and has repeatedly proven himself to be no stranger to either politics, controversy or militant activism. "There are two ways to deal with the white man," he says, "you either pick up a gun, or you stand between him and his money."
In June of 2007 Nelson called for a National Day of Action, threatening to block the Canadian National Railway "to draw attention to aboriginal poverty and unresolved land claims." His initiative turned into a national crisis for the government, and Ottawa agreed to substantial concessions so he would call off the blockades.
In 2009 he was the winner of another face-off with Ottawa. The Canadian Federal Court ruled to remove him from office, but he managed to remain as chief, re-elected with a large majority in the band council election.
Nelson's still greater victory against the Canadian government came last year as he won a historic land claim that had been rejected 3 times over the past century. He secured for his aboriginal community the largest payment per acre settlement in Canadian history.
Apparently encouraged by the outcome of his aggressive methods, Nelson gradually trained his eyes on bigger game, starting to speak about oil and flirt with OPEC, the Middle East and even Islam. With that move, things took a new turn and picked new speed -- and new implications.
In December 2011, he told a group of chiefs in a demonstration in front of the Parliament in Ottawa that the only way for the Aboriginal communities to solve their chronic financial problems was to seize a share of the oil that flows from Canada to the United States through Aboriginal territories. He warned the Canadian and American governments that they had "plans to launch actions against existing oil pipelines in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, along with several U.S. states."
In February 2012, Nelson wrote a letter to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad via the Iranian embassy in Ottawa. He thanked the Iranian government and specifically the Iranian embassy in Ottawa for their support of his activities, and, in a rather risky move, he associated Iran's "right to defend themselves against aggression," with the flow of Canadian oil to the United States, and the precarious nature of that situation as the Canadian government "endangers its right of access to our Treaty historical lands including the lands upon which the pumping depot sits."
Nelson's letter created a stir and troubled many, leading to various statements and objections from politicians and the media alike.
Meanwhile the Iranians were also showing an enthusiastic appetite for what Nelson had to offer. In January the Iranian foreign ministry summoned the Canadian charge d'affaires in Tehran, Dennis Horak, over Canada's violations of the human rights of its Aboriginal people.
By now things were officially serious. Joseph Lavoie, the spokesperson for the Foreign Affairs Minister, made a statement on the issue, calling Nelson a "pawn" of the Islamic Republic in "a sad game." But, as if flirting with Iran was not creating enough controversy, in April Nelson announced his candidacy for the Assembly of First Nations National Chief elections during the Friday prayers in a Toronto mosque, and drew comparisons between Canadian Aboriginals and Palestinians.
On July 13, Nazanin Afshin-Jam, the Iranian-born wife of Canada's Defense Minister, gave two interviews. In the first, she called for the closure of the Iranian embassy in Ottawa, and in the second, she called on Terry Nelson to cut his ties with Iran.
But news leaked shortly that Nelson was officially invited to travel to Iran in October. He would be heading a delegation in search of foreign allies and for soliciting economic investments, and also to address the Iranian Parliament about the abuses of Aboriginal human rights by the Canadian government. "It's time," he said, "to break ties to the immigrant [Canadian] government's foreign policy."
Three days after Nelson's travel to Iran was confirmed, John Baird made the surprise announcement that Canada is shutting down the Iranian embassy in Ottawa, and breaking all diplomatic ties with Iran.
Neither Baird nor any other Canadian officials have suggested a connection between the move to close embassies and the trouble with Nelson. But Nelson himself is convinced of that connection. In a letter to Prime Minister Harper he writes:
In today's [September 10] Globe and Mail, there is an article on the closing of the embassies in Tehran and Ottawa, stating "It is unclear what triggered Canada's decision..." We both know that the accusation that the Iranian Embassy in Ottawa was recruiting Iranians in Canada was a smokescreen, the real reason for the closure is APTN reporting our scheduled trip to Tehran on October 8 to 20.
Even though Terry Nelson continues with his plans in relative silence for now, it is not impossible to predict more trouble ahead. For all intents and purposes, it is foreseeable that Iran will use the issue to wage its own media war. A statement issued last Thursday by the Iranian Foreign Ministry calls for international attention to "the grave situation of the Canadian indigenous people," and expresses "deep concern" for the "continued systematic violation of the[ir] basic rights" and "the inhumane conditions" imposed on them by the Canadian government.
While the real and immediate causes for Ottawa's drastic move may never be explicitly revealed, it remains to be seen how this Ojibwa chief's story will unfold and how far the mutually dangerous ethnic minorities game might be pushed.