The Assembly of First Nations, which represents all the indigenous nations of Canada, wants to establish a diplomatic mission in Israel. An AFN delegation that included several chiefs of various nations met on Wednesday with President Moshe Katsav to tell him how much they have been inspired by Israel in their quest to reclaim their own national identities, cultures and territories.
In the course of the meeting, Peter Barrow, Chief of the Indian Island, New Brunswick, proposed that Israel start a diplomatic relationship with the indigenous people of Canada. "You know how hard it was for you to be recognized," he said. "We want to establish a diplomatic mission here. We are looking to become globally accepted and global players."
Earlier, after having heard Katsav outline the ancient and modern history of Israel up to the current conflict with Hamas, AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine briefed the President on the history, the tribulations and the aims of the nations that have united under the AFN banner.
"We also had a great civilization rich in tradition, with a great contribution towards Canada," he said. "We don't occupy the same place. We struggle to revitalize our culture and work hard to preserve our language. We're the original indigenous people of Canada. Once, all of Canada was ours. We owned it. We occupied it. We thrived in it. Today, we are far from the lofty place in which we used to be. We want to be where we used to be once - occupying our land."
Today, the indigenous nations own less than half of one per cent of Canada, he said "We see what you have accomplished. It is a lesson for us. We strive for identity and we want to reclaim our land - not all of Canada, but the land that we need to survive and thrive."
Of the 55 indigenous languages of Canada, which derive from 11 language groups, Fontaine disclosed, only three remain strong. Fontaine's own native tongue is Ojibway. "English is my second language," he told Katsav.
Canadian policy over the years, he continued, has been to lump all the indigenous nations under the title of "Indian." But they are not Indian, Fontaine pointed out. They are individual aboriginal nations.
One of the lessons the AFN is taking back to Canada after its intensive tour of Israel is the work that was done to revive Hebrew and to make it the main spoken language.
When Katsav interjected that the delegation had the instruments of a democracy at their disposal, Fontaine told him that this was only a recent development. "We were not always allowed to practice our customs," he said. "It was against the law. We were taken away from our families and placed in institutions where we could not practice our customs and language. For a considerable period we were not recognized as people. It was only in 1960 that we received the right to vote."
In the early years, Fontaine said, the voting turnout by the indigenous people was low, but during the most recent elections in January 2006, "our people came out in an unprecedented way, with over 60% voting."
It has taken the AFN a long time to learn that it could play an important role in the election process, he said.
Referring to Israel's battle for independence and acceptance, Fontaine said: "We've come to see the struggle that you engaged into secure your identity and your land and what you had to do to maintain your special place in the world, which mirrors the mighty struggle we've engaged in."
Recalling the period of the British Mandate, Barrow said: "When the British left Israel, they gave the land back to the Israelis. When they left India, they gave the land back to the Indians. When they left South Africa, they gave the land back to the South Africans. We in North America have not had that particular run of luck, and we're not likely to at any time soon. We strive for the same recognition as Israel in the world. We have many similarities."
While Katsav was not in the position to comment on the request for diplomatic ties, he made the point that Jews were able to return to their ancestral homeland after 2000 years of exile because they had maintained the heritage which united them. "I call on you to keep your heritage and revive your language," he exhorted.
Katsav also made it clear that even though Israel and the Jewish people have survived centuries of attempts to obliterate them, the threat remains constant, especially with regard to Iran, whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, denies Israel's right to exist.
"Iran is a totalitarian country that cooperates with international terrorism," he said. "If Iran gets nuclear weapons, it will be dangerous not only for Israel, but for the stability of the entire world."
Despite the fact that Israel four years ago agreed to the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state, a factor that was a major turning point in Israeli policy, said Katsav, Hamas is still calling for Israel's destruction and refusing to recognize commitments that were made by Yasser Arafat.
To highlight the tremendous forward step taken by Israel with regard to Palestinian sovereignty, Katsav noted that the Arab world could have easily given the Palestinians recognition and independence before 1967. "If the Palestinians are really a nation, why didn't the Arab world give them recognition?" he asked. "Why does Israel have to?"