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First Nations Trade Mission to China a Multicultural Celebration

First Nations leaders traveled to China to promote trade ties and business partnerships, and participated in the unveiling of a totem pole in Beichuan to honor those who suffered in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake
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First Nations leaders from across Canada have returned from their weeklong trade trip to China flush with ideas and the promise of new relationships forged directly with the Asian country.

“First Nations are pursuing economic development opportunities at home and abroad,” said Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), in a statement. “Our trade mission to China has proven to be an effective way to strengthen our relationship with one of the world’s economic leaders. In our many meetings, we received a clear signal from government officials and the private sector of their willingness to work with First Nations in ways that are respectful, responsible and sustainable—an approach that is key to successful partnerships.”

The business highlight was attending the grand opening of the First Nation Grain Management Office in Dalian. The First Nation-led company combines development with environmental stewardship.

The delegation included Atleo and First Nation leaders from across Canada. The leaders met with the Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association, the AFN statement said, as well as a number of governmental and private sector organizations, among them the China People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, Zhongchuan Mining Group, Chinese government officials, Chinese National Committee for Pacific Economic Cooperation, Chinese Department of Commerce, Beidahuang Group (an agricultural, seafood, and forestry company), Sichuan Metallurgical and Geological Bureau, Dalian International Economic and Technical Cooperation Group Ltd., Dalian Shi Yu Garments Co. Ltd., Beichuan Qiang chief and officials, and the Xian Road Construction Machinery Co.

AFN Yukon Regional Chief Eric Morris, who oversees economic development and partnerships for the AFN, said the trade potential between First Nations and China is huge.

“First Nations can play a constructive role in helping China meet its vast food and energy needs and providing finished products made in our communities, all ways that are respectful of our rights, our lands and our peoples,” Morris said in the AFN statement. “There is a definite opportunity and interest in continuing our work together. We look forward to reporting back to Chiefs and First Nation citizens on this mission and identifying other potential partners for economic development.”

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The trip was part of an ongoing effort on the part of aboriginals to connect with Chinese potential trade partners. British Columbia First Nations visited China in the summer, all as part of an international push being made by aboriginals to create nation-to-nation partnerships without the Canadian government’s acting as middleman.

The Chinese have also come to Turtle Island. The Chinese ambassador attended an AFN gathering last December, and a delegation from that country participated in the AFN’s International Indigenous Summit on Energy and Mining in June.

“There will be continued work with the Embassy of the Peoples Republic of China and the Canadian Embassy on a potential AFN-China joint symposium on trade, as well as ongoing work to identify and build partnerships,” the AFN statement said.

It wasn’t all business, though. There was a special stop in Beichuan to pay tribute to those whose lives were devastated in the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 and to unveil the China Tribute Pole, a totem pole carved in British Columbia for the city. According to the First Nations Summit, just after the quake a delegation of First Nations leaders from British Columbia were visiting China and saw a photo of a Qiang elder holding a goatskin drum, standing outside the ruins of his home. They were inspired by this to visit those devastated by the earthquake. upon their return home the First Nation leaders approached the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art in Terrace, British Columbia, to carve a totem to memorialize Qiang people whose lives had been devastated by the quake. The eagle at the top and grizzly bear at the bottom make the totem stand as both a symbol of strength and healing, the Summit said, as well as of the bond that exists between First Nations in British Columbia, Canada and the Chinese people.

In a multicultural ceremony, the groups blended traditions to create a ceremony that combined elements from both cultures.

“While our cultures and histories differ, we shared in ceremonies with the Chinese that will connect us now into the future,” Atleo said in the statement later. “The totem pole–raising ceremony in the city of Beichuan will live with us as an example of spirit and courage—something we have both learned is essential in achieving a common goal or vision, and the need for community and unity to support one another particularly in the face of immense challenge or tragedy.”