(Nazanin Afshin-Jam/publicity photo)
By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
A prominent Iranian-Canadian human rights activist and wife of Defence Minister Peter MacKay says she “pleaded” with Terry Nelson, a former Manitoba chief running for national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, to end his dealings with Iran and cancel a planned trip to the country’s capital.
Nazanin Afshin-Jam said in an interview with APTN National News, which aired Friday, that she contacted Nelson after it emerged the former chief of Roseau River met with officials at the Iranian embassy in March to prepare a trip to Tehran and address that country’s Parliament.
“We were upset with the fact that the (First Nations) of anybody know the true meaning of human rights abuses around the world,” said Afshin-Jam. “It was quite hypocritical for us to hear that this chief wanted to meet with some of the worst abusers on the plant.”
Afshin-Jam fled Iran with her family in 1979 after the Iranian revolution toppled the Shah. Her father, who ran a luxury hotel, was jailed and tortured by the revolutionaries before their escape.
She made headlines this week calling for the closing of the Iranian embassy in Ottawa. Afshin-Jam, who represented Canada at the Miss World pageant in 2003 coming in second, was reacting to reports that an Iranian embassy official told a Farsi-language website that Iranian-Canadians should “be of service to our beloved Iran.” The official also urged Iranian-Canadians to “occupy high-level key positions” and “resist being melted into the dominant Canadian culture.”
The Conservative government reacted angrily, warning Iran not to recruit Iranian-Canadians who “rejected the oppressive Iranian regime.”
Afshin-Jam said she worries the Iranian government may try to use First Nations people as pawns in a larger game.
“I know they have reached out to some First Nations groups here in Canada and I’m afraid they might be trying to sue them in a way to benefit their own advantage,” she said.
Afshin-Jam said she spoke by telephone with Nelson and told him not to go to Iran.
“I also pleaded with him not to take the steps to fly to Iran and meet with these representatives that are so oppressive to our people,” she said.
Nelson said he remembers speaking with Afshin-Jam, but he said he wasn’t swayed by her arguments.
“I said, as far as I am concerned, that is okay, you got your opinion, I talked to the other side too, they said there were really bad people when the Shah and all the rest of them were in charge,” said Nelson. “When they were in charge, they were not exactly the staunch human rights people.”
Nelson said First Nations need to approach countries willing to acknowledge the human rights abuses against Indigenous people in Canada.
“If the Iranian government is willing to take our case forward, that is fine. Why isn’t the German government, or the American government, or the English government, or the French government doing it?” said Nelson. “Why hasn’t the Israeli government said anything? Have they condemned Canada? Have they commented, have they said anything?”
Nelson said he plans to use his speech during next week’s AFN national chief election in Toronto to again condemn the sanctions against Iran, which were imposed to slow if not stop Tehran’s development of nuclear weapons capability.
“I am going to do that in my speech. I don’t give a damn what anybody thinks about it,” said Nelson. “First Nations need to have an independent foreign policy and should not simply be tied to the immigrant government of Canada or the warmongers on the U.S. side.”
Nelson said his trip to Tehran is still in the works. In April, he received a letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff rebuking Canada for its treatment of Aboriginal people.
The letter, signed by Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, chief of staff to Ahmadinejad, accused Canada of committing “systematic segregation and discrimination” against Aboriginal people.
“I would like to reiterate my deep sorrow and sadness about the unfortunate violation of the basic human rights of the
Aboriginal peoples of Canada,” wrote Mashaei, in the letter which was obtained by APTN National News. “The basic standards of services, for instance, health care, education and security, provided to the First Nations peoples in comparison with what is offered to the mainstream Canadians…is a clear indication of the systemic segregation and discrimination and a cause of concern for any neutral observer.”
Ahmadinejad’s presidential office sent the letter, written in Farsi, to the Iranian embassy which delivered it to Nelson through an intermediary.
Iran has, over the years, publicly and repeatedly called out Canada over the treatment of Indigenous people.
Afshin-Jam said it’s just a ploy to divert attention from Tehran’s own human rights abuses.
“The Iranian regime is using the First Nations people and their plight in a political way to try to advance their own system,” she said. “The Iranian regime loves to put the finger back on those who condemn them and we’re seeing this again in the case of Canada.”
In the mid-1920s, Iran, then known as Persia, supported a request by Haudenosaunee hereditary Chief Deskaheh to have the League of Nations consider a Six Nations Confederacy for formal membership as a state. The attempt eventually failed, and the federal government dissolved the Six Nations Confederacy Council and imposed an Indian Act band government.
Iran, however, has a history of repressing its own Indigenous population.
The Iranian Kurds, which occupy the northwestern region of Iran, have faced repression from both the Iranian government under the Shah and the Islamic Republic that emerged after the Shah was overthrown.
Iranian Kurds, who have tried to establish a degree of autonomy in Iran, faced not only violent repression and the assassination of its political leaders, but also systemic discrimination in everything from employment to political participation, according to Amnesty International.
Kurdish regions are economically neglected, Kurds have “restricted access to adequate housing,” and Iran bans parents from registering their children with select Kurdish names, according to the human rights group.